The New South and the New Slavery

Convict Labor in Georgia

The Convict Lease System

The introduction of the convict lease system in 1866 made it hard to distinguish the new, post-emancipation South from the old, slaveholding South. In 1868 Georgia’s first convict lease contract granted one hundred prisoners from the State Penitentiary to the Georgia and Alabama Railroad for a period of one year at a cost of $2,500. The state exploited these men and women as the solution to the post-war labor crisis.

Convict Leasing propelled the state into the industrial age. Convicts expanded Georgia’s railway system by laying hundreds of miles of new track. This expansion of transportation jump-started the coal, mining, and rock quarry industries. As the demand for cheap labor soared, discriminatory policies and unfair sentencing fed hundreds more prisoners, most of them African American, into the convict lease system. The state granted private businesses complete control over the lives of prisoners, who were overworked, underfed, and abused.

Brutality was a common feature of Georgia's convict camps, which came under increasing scrutiny toward the end of the nineteenth century. Violence, and the widespread sexual abuse and assault of female prisoners by wardens, were clear indications that slavery in the South continued to exist in a new form.