On June 30, 1928, Alabama ended the leasing of convicts to mine coal. One of the most controversial practices in southern labor history, this was a significant step toward human and labor rights in a state that too often was actively hostile toward those ideas. But Alabama deserves no credit for it, as it was a step done with extreme reluctance and was the last state in the nation to abolish the convict-lease system.
In the post-Civil War South, the growing coal industry wanted laborers and they wanted them cheap. Effectively, they were bitter than slavery had ended entirely. But the Thirteenth Amendment had a big exception: incarcerated laborers. Prisoners could effectively be treated as slaves. Moreover, southern states had no money to hold prisoners after the war. So it was in everyone’s interests–except for the prisoners–that they be used as a state-owned labor force contracted out to private interests. John Henry, that American mythical figure, was probably a black Union soldier convicted of a crime in a Virginia court and contracted out as an unpaid laborer to a railroad company in the western part of that state, where he died. Moreover, companies openly used these prison laborers to avoid paying free labor, infuriating free miners. In Tennessee in 1891, the Coal Creek War developed between miners on one side and mine owners and the state on the other side over this issue.
Alabama had used convict labor under private contracts for a long time. But in 1875, needing more steady revenue, the state sought to make more money off the prisoners. This led to the convict-lease system, which meant that an employer would pay the state to use the prisoner, who of course would receive nothing except for whatever food and housing the employer would give them. It wasn’t just in coal either. Prison labor was common in logging and agriculture. The state made a ton of money on this, significantly improving its financial situation. Seeing this, the counties followed. By 1898, a full 75 percent of Alabama’s state government was funded through the convict-lease system.
By the 1880s, nearly all of the state prisoners were in the convict-lease system. Only old and infirm prisoners and women were kept in actual jail, and later, women were sent to work on farms. Many of them were in the coal mines around Birmingham. That 90 percent of the state prisoners and 95 percent of the county prisoners were black goes without saying, although there were a few white prisoners too. The living and working conditions of these prison laborers were absolutely abysmal and basically reconstituted slavery. In fact, the early prison contractors were former slave owners trying to reinstitute the system in all but name.
Over time there was a little bit of an effort to reform the prison labor system. A social worker named Julia Strudwick Tutwiler worked to open some schools for the prisoners to give them some hope if they ever got out. Since prisoners’ release dates were routinely ignored by the company contracting their labor and since the state didn’t care, there was an effort to give prisoners a mechanism by which they could alert authorities if they were being held after their release date. But we aren’t talking about much in the way of real reform here. And none of this applied to the county prisoners.
Moreover, even with free and paid labor, working in a coal mine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a very dangerous way to make a living. With prisoners and the utter indifference by the mine owners to whether they lived or died, it was even worse. In 1911, a mine explosion killed 125 black prisoners contracted out to the Banner Mine by Jefferson County. That led to more calls for reform but Alabama didn’t care. About 1,000 coal miners died in accidents in Alabama between 1900 and 1910 and probably a significant majority of those were black prison laborers. There was a mine safety law passed in the aftermath of the Banner explosion, but no changes to the convict-lease system.
The pressure to end this system grew throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but Alabama resisted. When Florida abolished the system in 1923, Alabama was the last state. In 1912, the main company to use them, Tennessee Coal and Iron, announced it would only use free labor from that point forward. But the state then responded by opening coal mines of its own and forcing the prisoners to work in them. The impetus to finally abolish it seems to have been when a prisoner was tortured to death in a vat of boiling water. Even before this, there were now consistent bills in the legislature to get the state into the twentieth century like everyone else, but only after that torture death did enough people find it to be enough. So, on June 30, 1928, the prison labor system was finally abolished. Over the years, probably 25 percent or so of the prisoners died under this system.
Still today, far too many prisoners are being forced to work against their will. This has led to plenty of resistance over time. The 1978 Ellis Prison strike in Texas is one example. 2018’s prison strike is another. But nothing will really change until the Thirteenth Amendment is fixed. In 2010, a federal court held that “prisoners have no enforceable right to be paid for their work under the Constitution.” And as wretched and awful as that is, it’s almost certainly the correct legal decision.
This is the 318th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.