Convict leasing represents a specific type of prison labor that emerged in the post–Civil War South. Typically, leasing was an arrangement by which individuals convicted of felonies were hired out to private companies who worked inmates as they chose beyond the walls of the state prison. Leasing represented the decentralization of state authority and an emphasis on punishment over reform as the guiding principle of incarceration. The adoption of convict leasing set the South apart from the North, where a new reformatory prison ideology was taking hold. However, South Carolina, one of three states that had not built a state penitentiary prior to the Civil War, built one shortly after the war’s close. Thus, at a time when most other southern states were moving away from the principle of a centrally run penitentiary system, South Carolina moved to adopt the northern model.
The exact origins of convict leasing in South Carolina remain unclear. Scholars have argued that a February 1872 act provided for the hiring out of convicts from the Columbia Penitentiary to private individuals. However, the details of this act bear no resemblance to legislation passed in other southern states establishing leasing. Prison officials did hire out an unknown but relatively small number of convicts from 1873 to 1874 to private individuals as a means of securing needed money. However, in March 1874, at the urging of black South Carolinians, Republicans passed legislation expressly forbidding the hire of inmates beyond the prison’s walls.
Throughout the late nineteenth century African Americans were resolutely opposed to the establishment of convict leasing in South Carolina. Black South Carolinians understood that leasing represented an assault on the creation of a northern-style penitentiary system and an abandonment of the principle of convict rehabilitation. For African Americans, the decentralized nature of the convict lease system evoked memories of gang labor and plantation justice that they associated with slavery. The relative strength of African Americans within the Republican Party during Reconstruction even prevented Republican governor Daniel H. Chamberlain from moving forward with an 1875 proposal to establish the convict lease system.
South Carolina became the only state where the responsibility for the establishment of leasing resided solely with the Democratic Party. Having successfully wrested political power from Republicans in 1876, Democratic politicians moved quickly to enact leasing legislation. In April 1877 Governor Wade Hampton III called for the passage of a bill by which “the labor of the convicts in the penitentiary could be made profitable,” and the Democratic-controlled legislature obliged. With the eclipse of Republican and African American political power, the state’s first true convict leasing bill became law on June 8, 1877. Over the next few months and years Democrats passed additional measures firmly entrenching leasing as one method of employing South Carolina’s felony convicts.
South Carolina made its first contracts for the hire of state inmates in the summer of 1877. Penitentiary officials leased out more than 270 inmates to labor for three separate employers, including 100 convicts sent to work for the Greenwood and Augusta Railroad. During the next twenty years, penitentiary officials continued to hire out convicts. Typically, larger companies hired between 50 and 100 inmates to work on railroads, mine phosphate, or labor as farm hands. While the state sought large lease contracts, all types of arrangements were made, and some contractors hired as few as 10 inmates for seasonal work on smaller farms. The lease proved lucrative to the state for a time, and in the early 1880s prison officials did not ask for any appropriations.
Conditions for convicts working in the lease system varied widely. At times prisoners labored under horrifying circumstances. An 1879 investigation revealed that inmates working at the Greenwood and Augusta Railroad camp in Edgefield County were “infected with scurvy, and with an eruption which was evidently caused by vermin on their persons.” Between 1877 and 1879 fifty-one percent of convicts hired by the railroad died. Other operations were so lenient that one citizen wrote to penitentiary officials complaining that inmates hired by J. R. Fowler were allowed “to go to Laurens [and] to other places . . . without regular armed guards.”
Convict leasing came to an end in South Carolina in the 1890s. Its origins lay in the economic demands of a war-torn region and in whites’ desire to use the state’s criminal justice system to control a newly emancipated black population. Changing economic circumstances in the 1890s robbed leasing of its financial appeal, and the emerging architecture of Jim Crow segregation and disfranchisement meant that leasing was no longer needed as a tool of racial subordination. By 1897 South Carolina had abandoned the lease system, choosing instead to work convicts on state-run prison farms or in industrial shops within the walls of the penitentiary.
Ayers, Edward L. Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century American South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Kamerling, Henry. “‘Too Much Time for the Crime I Done’: Race, Ethnicity, and the Politics of Punishment in Illinois and South Carolina, 1865–1900.” Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1998.
Mancini, Matthew J. One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866–1928. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.