@Book{ mancini1996,
	author = {Matthew J. Mancini},
	title = {One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866-1928},
	address = {Columbia},
	publisher = {University of South Carolina},
	year = 1996,

Mancini uses convict leasing as a way to understand “the economic and political condition of the society that spawned it,” arguing that “all the major themes of the period in Southern history were clustered together within that institution: fears of a labor shortage, racism, the dearth of capital, hair-trigger violence, the courageous efforts of humane reformers, and, through it all, the struggle to modernize” (p. 2).

The title of the book comes from a statement made by a Southern lessee who contrasted convict leasing with slavery by noting that when whites owned slaves, “if a man had a good negro, he could afford to keep him,” but since lessees did not own convicts, their basic attitude was “one dies, get another.” For Mancini, the phrase captures well the brutal origins of leasing in slvery, but also calls attention to “the most salient different between it and slavery” (p. 3).

Part 1

In the first chapter, Mancini discusses the differences between the “Auburn” and “Pennsylvania” plans, as well as various other distinctions made by nineneenth-century penologists that ultimately distract from the broad similarity in all convict leasing systems.

Another obstacle to understanding, according to Mancini, is a focus on the continuity with slavery. While he concedes that “convict leasing was partially a response to the demise of slavery,” he does not see it as “a functional replacement for slavery,” or even as a “system” per se.1 With comparative glances at Orlando Patterson, David Brion Davis, and others, Mancini argues that an economic model for understanding slavery is most important when considering differences between it and convict leasing, and that on these terms, “the convict lease was ‘worse’ than slavery” in that the rate of economic exploitation was greater (20-22). There was also a greater economic incentive to the abuse of convicts, according to Mancini, and greater potential for speculation.

p. 24:

It is imperative, then, to be rid of the sloppy and imprecise notion that convict leasing was some form of slavery or even a “functional replacement” for it, whatever such a formula might mean. For, in some sense, of course, all kinds of coerced labor are substitutes or replacements for slavery, as slavery is for them. There is a subset within a larger category, labor, that comprises varieties of forced labor. That slavery and convict leasing are two components of the subset does not make them functional equivalents.

As further evidence, Mancini argues that most Southern courts increasingly held that convicts were not “civilly dead”—that is, they “retained all rights of citizenship except those which the legislature might choose to revoke by law.” (My question here, though, is whether this distinction is meaningful early in the period being considered, when “rights of citizenship,” especially for black Southerners, were so thin.) On the whole, Mancini sees convict leasing as a form of prebourgeois feudal labor, in which state authority was ceded to private hands.

This does not mean that there were not important similarities, however, and in chapter 2, Mancini discusses convict labor as the reincarnation of “gang” and “squad” forms of labor control typical of slavery, though often fused with the labor quotas required under the task system.

p. 41:

Two essential tasks await the person or institution that wishes to mobilize forced labor—whether it be a slaveholder, a lessee of prisoners, or a feudal lord mustering his serfs for the corvée. First, one has to get the labor force assembled in the right place at the time they are needed; and second, one must then simply get them to do the work. These two fundamental problems, of mobilization and of incentives, can be seen to have shaped the conditions under which leased Southern convicts worked in the late nineteenth century.

The “collection” problem was solved by a criminal justice system and legal code designed to draw blacks into penitentiaries; the incentive problem was accomplished less by positive incentives (as sometimes occurred in highly skilled work done even under slavery) than by brutal quotas assigned to squads who were doing mostly extractive work under threat of phsical punishment.2

Chapter 3 discusses conditions and tortures at labor camps, with a focus on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. See p. 73, however, about the “widespread perception that many states’ politics were in the hands of a nebulous ‘penitentiary ring.’”

Part 2

A series of state-by-state case studies (some of which I have skipped over for the time being).


Chapter 6 presents Arkansas as one of the states that best “represented the element of public irresponsibility that leasing both encouraged and fed on” (117). It was one of three Southern states, along with Mississippi and Louisiana, that George Washington Cable described as the worst.

Mancini begins the story after the war, noting that “the dilapidated Arkansas prison had been taken over by federal forces when they entered Little Rock in September 1863” (p. 117) but then picking up with a first contract in 1867. A turning point in 1873 came with the first lease in which “the state did not pay the lessee for the service of taking the convicts off its hand” (119), but even then “a full-blown system, one of material benefit to both contracting parties, was still a decade away, for the state’s only advantage from this contract lay in its freedom from expense or responsibility,” not in any revenue collected for the state by the deal. Lessees paid the state for the first time in 1883, around the time Redemption government passed new criminal laws “directed at the poor and blacks” that swelled the prison population by 50 percent (120).

Notes by Ashley E.

  • The convict lease as beginning “in earnest” in 1873: under the new terms, the state would not pay lessees for taking prisoners, but it also was not being paid by the lessee in compensation for the prisoners’ labor. It was private—not public—revenue that was gained from convict labor at this point. A more mutually beneficial (financially speaking) system was “still a decade away.” (119)
  • Colonel Zebulon Ward was “a secret partner” of lessee John Peck (to whom the state’s prisoners had been leased for a ten year period from 1878 to 1883). Ward “bought Peck’s share in the lease” from 1875 to 1883. (119)
  • Zebulon gained favor with state politicians by regularly “treating legislators to lavish dinners.” The Democratic-led legislature that came about with Redemption in 1875 saw the passing of criminal laws that would furnish the state with more prisoners: between 1876 and 1882 the prison population increased from 400 to 600. It wasn’t until the state contract with Ward ended in 1883 that Arkansas began a leasing system that (like other southern states) required lessees to pay the state for the first time (119-120)
  • Before coming to Arkansas, Ward was a member of Kentucky’s legislator from 1861-63, and also the warden of Kentucky’s state penitentiary. He also leased prisoners in Tennessee at some point before coming to AR. In Arkansas, he had a reputation for being an “arrogant” and “hard-drinking flogger,” a description he apparently shared with his son Will to whom he delegated “many matters” in working the convicts. An 1880 outbreak of typhoid-pneumonia among a group of his convicts working on railroad construction led the state to “[decide] to seek other bids” for future lessees.
  • Sources from mancini1996 include: Gilmore, “Convict Lease,” 24; for an example see Arkansas Gazette, 27 February 1979, 4; Genealogies of Kentucky Families (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1981), II: 598; Ward quoted by Cable in Silent South, 123; Gilmore, “Convict Lease,” 28-29; Physician’s Report, 1880, 3-5; Committee on the Penitentiary, Arkansas House Journal, 1881, 423.


The first lease laws were passed in the immediate postwar years, first by the state legislature and then by the military governor of the state in 1868, largely as a means of solving what was seen as a tremendous burden to the state—the housing and care of prisoners: “Like the early prison labor contracts in such states as Alabama and Arkansas, where the penitentiary was seen as an enormous headache at first and a source of revenue only later, this contract actually paid the lessee” (133).

One of the most prominent lessees in the state was Edmund Richardson, the largest cotton planter in the world, who in 1868 received “not only the labor of the convicts for three years, but also $18,000 annually for the expenses associated with their care,” plus $12,000 for transportation costs (133).3 When Richardson’s lease later was cancelled after the restoration of civilian government, Nathan Bedford Forrest secured the least instead.

These early leases still revealed some ambivalence on the part of the state government, which did not develop a full-fledged policy until the mid-1870s, when the state passed its notorious “Pig Law” making any theft of livestock “grand larceny” (135), along with laws providing for subleasing and for convict labor on plantations as well as public works.4 These changes encouraged Mississippi officials by 1877 to see the leasing system as a source of revenue for the state, though reports of abuse and continuing trouble turning a profit in the 1880s increased public dissatisfaction with the system.


Chapter 8 stresses the “recklessness” of Louisiana’s postwar “penal policy, if such it can be called. … One searches in vain for glimmers of bureaucratic organization, regular records, unambiguous sentences, or clear goals—even the goals of exploitation or profit—in the first years after the Civil War” (144). The state did not even produce prison reports in the 1870s and 1880s.

p. 145:

In contrast to those in neighboring states, Louisiana officials always knew convicts were a valuable commodity and never made the mistake of paying anyone to take the burdensome problem off their hands. The only indecision occurred when convicts were briefly returned to the penitentiary in January 1867.

In 1866, the state leased “forty-five convicts” to the “Baton Rouge, Grosse Tete and Opelousas Railroad for fifty cents a day” (p. 145), but those convicts were returned in January 1867. “The next year, 1868, the board tried to wash its hands of the growing convict problem” (145), abdicating nearly all control over convicts to new lessees John Hugher and Charles Jones. They promptly sold out to S. L. James, who in turn sublet many convicts, making it difficult for officials even to know who was controlling the prisoners. Laws passed by the Reconstruction legislature to ban convict labor outside of the penitentiary were simply ignored (146-147). Even those who disapproved of this “system,” or lack thereof, had difficulty mounting campaigns against it, however, for while “the state was getting no revenue from the convicts’ labor, … it was not laying out any expenses, either” (147).

Support for the abolition of the lease grew by 1898, but abolition was usually “part of a radically undemocratic package of political changes cloaked in the garb of reforms, and it was made possible by the creation of vast state-owned plantations” (150) that lasted at Angola until the mid- to late-twentieth century.


p. 154:

Like other Southern states, Tennessee in the late 1860s confronted a seemingly insurmountable fiscal wall. In 1869 the situation was so dire that the state comptroller told the governor: “The demands upon the State Treasury at the present time are of such a nature—as is well known to all—as hopeless to bankrupt the state in one month.” The penitentiary alone was $50,000 in debt in 1866, the year the directors of the penitentiary leased the labor of the convicts inside the prison to a firm of furniture manufacturers, Ward and Briggs, at forty-three cents per convict daily. But when the lessee’s equipment was destroyed by fire in June 1867, they and the state became involved in a ferocious legal wrangle. By mutual consent the lease was canceled in 1869, although a full settlement was not reached until the following year, when the legislature reimbursed Ward and Briggs with an appropriation of $132,000. [p. 155] Finding themselves unable to lease the penitentiary with its ruined capital equipment and damaged inventory, the directors recommended the prohibition of leasing. Tennessee actually was the first state to do so—for five months. From February through June 1870 legislation was in effect prohibiting the leasing of a convict—without the convict’s consent.


Chapter 10 argues that by the end of 1884, “Texas … had become a sharecropper, providing a labor force, guards, and clothing to landowners who in turn furnished land, seed, gin stands, and cotton presses” (167). Reformers who called for abolishing the lease were thwarted by “the parsimonious legislature” who did not want to authorize funds to repair Huntsville State Penitentiary. Texas’s experience was closest, says Mancini, to that of Arkansas, but “in the racial composition of its convict population it is unlike the rest of the South, except for the disproportionate representation of African Americans in the convict camps” (168).

Mancini traces these trends to the immediate postwar years, when “the dilapidated prison at Huntsville was overcrowded with prisoners, many of whom were ill, while population pressures continued to mount and the state treasury was virtually empty” (168). Meanwhile, the status of the state government was confused for several years, as a “Restoration” government was first elected under Presidential Reconstruction and then dismantled by Congressional Reconstruction.

“Between August 1866 and March 1867, however—that is, in the brief interval of the Restoration government—the Texas legislature, in addition to passing the Black Codes, approved ‘An Act for the Employment of Convict Labor on Works of Public Utility’” (169), an act whose title suggests that legislators saw prison policy primarily in terms of labor for public benefit, rather than in terms of punishment or rehabilitation. “Under this short-lived act, the Board of Public Works leased 250 convicts at a monthly rate of $12.50. They built railroads: the Airline took 100 men, and the Brazos Branch 150.” This lease led to endless squabbles between lessees and state government, and the lease was not renewed in 1867, when prisoners were taken back to penitentiary in November. Although there was some discussion of leasing the prison during the Reconstuction Convention of 1868, nothing was done until 1871.

That was when the lease to Ward, Dewey and Company, with Nathan Patton as a partner, was made.

p. 171:

For the state of Texas and its convicts, the Ward, Dewey lease was a mistake of massive proportions, and it could be seen to be a disaster almost from the start. The rates of escape and death were enormous. Probably 300 escaped in 1876 alone (1,723 convicts were on hand in March of that year), while 109 died from disease, 28 more were killed by guards, and 182 could not be accounted for. That year, Ward and Dewey lost their lease.

They lost the lease, however, more because of their Republican ties than because of their obvious mismanagement. It was part of Redemption under the Coke administration.

Later, the state awarded a lengthy lease to Cunningham and Ellis, sugar planters in Sugarland. “The prisoners working the cane fields, not surprisingly, were an entirely black labor force,” even though “Texas had the lowest proportion of blacks among its prison population of any Southern state—only about half” (176). Cunningham and Ellis used around 1,000 black convicts on their own properties, and subleased the rest to railroad companies and others. The death rates reported for convicts in the late 1870s and early 1880s when Cunningham and Ellis took over were abysmally high.

The state began to move in a different direction in 1882, refusing to continue Cunningham and Ellis’s lease and soliciting bids for leasing of white convict labor within the walls of the penitentiary while beginning to consider the purchase of its own state farm. The plan for in-the-walls bids failed, and created scandal when the state invited particular firms (who had bribed legislators) to bid. Then, in 1885, the state purchased its own farm near Richmond, though it continued to lease convicts out elsewhere. A second prison farm was purchased in 1899, while the Imperial and Ramsey farms were added nine years later. “All these properties were nearly contiguous and located in the fertile ‘Sugar Bowl’ region southwest of Houston” (180).

These purchases made it possible for the state to move away from leasing while capturing profits for itself. Meanwhile, rising costs of convict labor had convinced lessees that free labor might be just as economical.

  1. Mancini notes that Texas was somewhat exceptional in the South, in that only there were black prisoners a minority of the population, and its proportion in the convict population declined during the decades of leasing. Ed.– But by 1911, the number of black prisoners was double the number of white convicts. Mancini seems to make this judgment on the basis of figures from 1880 and 1882. But even in 1893, he says, there were 1593 white convicts and 1956 black convicts (179).

  2. Incidentlly, he notes that “the wood-cutting camps of Texas, usually run by railroad companies, were singled out more than once as the site of the toughest work convicts had to perform” (p. 47). He cites the Biennial Report of Texas Penitentiary for 1880, p. 17.

  3. Mancini also notes that Richardson used convicts in railroad construction, too, as a part owner of the Vicksburg, Shreveport, & Pacific Railroad.

  4. Mancini sees the latter two laws as more important than the “Pig Law” in explaining the growth of convict leasing in the state.