Why Do Inmates Fight Wildfires for Dollars a Day? The Origins of Prison Slavery


I thought this was an interesting article. Of course slavery never died. Only private slavery was outlawed. You can still be enslaved by the state. You don’t even need to be convicted of a crime. You can simply be drafted.

While antebellum convicts were mostly white, 7 out of 10 prisoners were now black.

There are several factors at work here. The first is many crimes committed by slaves would have been punished by their masters. Now the state is the sole master. Also freeing the slaves turned out a huge population of people ill prepared to care for themselves. The local economies were going through an incredibly difficult change.

A convict under James’ lease had a higher chance of death than he would have had as a slave.

That is an inconvenient fact.

There was simply no incentive for lessees to avoid working people to death. In 1883, 11 years before Samuel L. James’ death, one Southern man told the National Conference of Charities and Correction, “Before the war, we owned the negroes. If a man had a good negro, he could afford to take care of him: if he was sick get a doctor. He might even put gold plugs in his teeth. But these convicts: we don’t own ’em. One dies, get another.”

More inconvenient facts.

Georgia, whose penitentiary had been destroyed by Gen. Sherman, was leasing its convicts to a railroad builder.

I don’t think most people appreciate that the south was destroyed by the Union army. It was then occupied by that same malevolent army. Not surprisingly a lot of really bad things happened to everyone, Black and White, as a result.


Interesting that one would consider rehabilitation from and past crimes would be considered “slavery.”


Let’s see, I can sit in my cell all day and rot, or I can do something constructive that aids the society whose laws I broke that resulted in my being here. Sounds like a form of reparation for me.

And I have to echo Hodos statement that it is interesting to consider rehabilitation , “slavery.”


There’s nothing contrary to the natural law in the state requiring involuntary labor as punishment to redress a proportionate injustice. That being said, convicts should not be treated as animals–they can still be sinned against by those mandating the servitude if treated as such. It seems in many cases the injustices associated with private slavery were carried on in these public situations.


They were sentenced to to jail time, not labor that benefits the state financially. If your argument is to, stop putting low lever addicts in jail. Rarely are these jobs things that will rarely them in society. They are paid very poorly, did you ever think that being able to save a decent amount of money might help the transition to normal society? It may allow them to provide child support.

If we are to use them as labor, let’s make it real. Pay they, even at somewhat lower than minimum wage. Then once these people are done with their sentence, employ them. I’m not saying you do this with hardened criminals, but you could stop the cycle of prison many people find themselves. Getting a job is quite difficult and the temptation to re-offend becomes higher.


Let’s see; how much did the state (which by the way, is me, the taxpayer) have to spend to put this guy (or gal) in prison. How much did we taxpayers spend on the police that arrested him, the state’s attorneys who prosecuted him, the judge who issued the ruling, and the corrections officers, wardens, and other employees who provide him with food, clothing, and shelter? Most criminals cost the state far more then they could ever repay.

Most states do pay prison inmates some stipend for the work they do. It is often very minimal and allows them to buy cigarettes, magazines, etc. Paying them substantial dollars (say $5.00 USD - which is below minimum wage) and multiplying that times the # of prisoners in the jail population, would put an even greater burden on the state (read - me the taxpayer)


If you had wanted to discuss prison history or reform, that would have been appropriate. The neo-Confederate stuff, however, is not.


What neo confederate stuff? What on earth are you talking about? Just because one doesn’t think an army that burns down cities is good that means that person is a neo confederate? Do you think burning down cities is good? That hardly seems Catholic.


They are being provided compensation, in the form of secure shelter and meals.


Nothing particularly novel about convicts being sentenced to work, its been done since antiquity- not just the Reconstruction Era in the south.


Might I ask where you got that idea from? Using inmate labor to replace what was lost through slavery is historically accurate, as is the disproportion that was black. Not only that, but blacks in the South were not always given the freedom from their plantations. They were free workers in the sense that they were paid, but charged to live, and often killed if they tried to leave.


Please read my first reply on this thread.


Talking about how prisoners were used as cheap labor after the civil war seems like an interesting topic to discuss. Maybe even about how that has evolved into what goes on in prisons today. But talking as if the two are in some way equal is nothing but rhetoric.

Inmates generally want to have something to do other than sit around all day doing nothing. And they are working for the State, not for a for profit corporation. So make an argument why they should get paid more. Don’t compare today to the post civil war south.


Just to remind you that it WAS a war after all… And if you don’t want where you live destroyed, then Gen. Lee should have surrendered sooner.

I would just like to add in the Union Army’s defense, that things would have gone much better for the South if the Union Army’s original Commander in Chief had not been assassinated. After the war, the occupying army under Pres. Johnson had a MUCH different type of Commander in Chief. Pres. Lincoln would have helped rebuild the South. John Wilkes Booth did the South no favor.


You are probably right about the assasination. We used to have rules for war which included not burning cities and stealing from and harming civilians. That was a product of Christendom. That war marked the end of many things some good and some bad.


This actually is true, for the majority. Even without pay, but just a few extra privileges, inmates will want to get out and do some sort of work. It is kind of in our human nature. Where I am, those incarcerated work on a volunteer basis, and there still ten people ask to work for everyone that does.


I would think inmates especially want to get out of modern prisons. They are particularly dehumanizing with the way they isolate prisoners from everything including the outside and fellow prisoners.


Gets you out of the house.


I think the state should use prison labor for everything it feasibly can. From maintaining public property, growing food for prisons, road maintenance, snow removal from sidewalks, etc. particularly if it will teach them a marketable skill they can use upon release.


Chattel slavery is and was an unmitigated evil.
Working convicts to death is an unmitigated evil.

Two wrongs don’t make a right, and you can’t possibly justify one evil by pointing to the other.

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