Crime Does Pay: It Pays the Government

February 4, 2022
Episode 1: The 13th Amendment, Black Codes, and Convict Leasing

Fellow Pilgrims,
On this day in 1846, the first known example of convict leasing was begun. The State of Alabama leased the entire Wetumpka Penitentiary to a businessman named J.G. Graham, who took over as its warden. The prisoners were all white, of course--slavery was its own prison for Black people.

Things changed with the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Truth be told, I’d never really noticed the part in italics. But it turns out to be quite the loophole because it solved two dilemmas faced by the South with respect to the newly freed slaves: how to control them, and how to extract from them the labor that was critical to the functioning of the southern economy.

Convict leasing was the perfect answer. But how to get the newly freed Blacks into the system? Many Southern states solved the problem by passing laws that became known as Black Codes. There were very few positive aspects to the Codes such as recognizing Black people’s right to own some types of property, make contracts, and testify in court (albeit only about other Black people), but their overwhelming focus was control and exploitation.

Here are some examples of things that were illegal for Black people to do under the Codes:
• Be a vagrant
• Change jobs without employer approval
• Leave a job before the end of the contract term
• Steal labor (i.e. not work hard enough)
• Bear arms
• Hunt
• Hold an occupation other than farmer or servant without paying the required annual tax of $10-$100
• Fail to have and produce written evidence of employment for the upcoming year each January
• Rent or own land in urban areas
• Be idle
• Make rude gestures
• Make mischief
• Preach without written permission from white authorities
Arrests were often made by contracted private citizens who were paid per arrest. Unsurprisingly, the number of arrests ebbed and flowed with the labor needs of the time. Only a few years after the end of the war, the formerly all-white population of Wetumpka Prison was 90% Black.

The Black Codes were short-lived and came to an end with Reconstruction. However, after Reconstruction ended with the Compromise of 1877, they would be replaced by sharecropping and Jim Crow. And while convict leasing in its original form ended with World War II, prison labor is still a major part of today’s economy.

What can you do?
• Read more about the Black Codes:
• Read more about convict leasing:
• Watch 13th, Ava DuVernay’s documentary about the loophole in the 13th Amendment that allowed for slavery to continue under another name.
• Audit the free, self-paced Yale University online course on African-American studies (covers much more than the Black Codes that are discussed in Lecture #3):
Stay tuned for future episodes of Crime Does Pay…It Pays the Government! Topics will include the private prison industry, prison phone calls (already discussed in the Dec 3 issue of The Work), modern-day prison labor, and the DOJ report on Ferguson, Missouri’s use of the justice system to extract wealth from the Black community.


Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko