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The Truth About Chain Gangs And Convict Labor

Jeremy A. Greenfield
English 101
Iowa Western Community College
Thesis: From the early chain gangs to the prison industries of today, prisoners have
been used as labor in the United States.

I. Definition
A. Definition of convict labor
B. Definition of chain gangs and prison industries
II. Chain Gangs
A. Early history
B. Mid-history
C. Decline
D. Present
E. Curtis Brown
III. Convict Labor
A. Statistics
B. Reasons for
C. Reasons against
D. Other benefits
E. Types of jobs
IV. Main Points Restated
A. Best arguments for convict labor
B. Best arguments against convict labor
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Prisons have been used as the way of punishment in the United States since its
beginning. Throughout the history of prisons, convicts have been used as labor. The
methods of labor, the number of laborers, and the arguments for or against has
constantly been changing. From the early chain gangs to the prison industries of today,
prisoners have been used as labor in the United States.

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When people think of chain gangs, they usually think of people in white and
black stripes, being forced to work in a harsh environment. This was often true.

Employees, also called “leasees”, were in charge of the inmates. They often treated the
inmates brutally. The name “chain gang” probably comes from the fact that the
inmates were chained together at the legs to reduce the chance of escape. (Reynolds
181) Inmates were often controlled by whips and other harsh disciplines and
punishments. People argued that the treatment was just because of the increased
chance of escape in chain gangs. (Reynolds 182) People also thought that the chain
gangs would deter crime, but studies show that they failed to deter. (Brownstein 179)
The living conditions were often unsanitary, crowded, and poorly constructed.

(Reynolds 182) These bad conditions of the past have given the chain gang an
extremely bad rap. The way people view chain gangs has changed several times
throughout their history in the United States.

The earliest history of chain gangs holds the cause for the bad views of them.

The public sees chain gangs as a racist part of the old South. The first chain gangs
began in England and the northern part of the United States during the eighteenth
century. (Reynolds 180) Even though chain gangs were legal in almost every state, the
South seemed to be the only region using them. Some reasons for this include the bad
climate of the North and the public’s thoughts against chain gangs. (Reynolds 183)
Another reason why we see the South as the source of chain gangs is because it was the
region that needed them the most. The South used chain gangs because after the Civil
War there was a labor shortage. The labor shortage and an escalation in crime caused
the South to begin leasing out convict labor. (Reynolds 180) It did not take long for
convict leasing to spread.

After the Civil War the South had to rebuild. That is why most of the states in
the South had convict labor by 1875. The most common workers of the chain gang
were county inmates who worked on the roads. A large amount of repairs was needed
to mend the roads that were destroyed during the war. Many convicts were also leased
out to farms in the South to replace the slaves who were freed because of the Civil War.

(Reynolds 180) The South was still a farming region with many large plantations that
needed workers. Southerners were accustomed to having cheap labor so convict labor
was thought as a good solution.

There seemed to be no concern for welfare of the convicts or the jobs of others.

Nobody cared that chain gangs were humiliating and degrading to inmates, which was
against the eighth amendment, preventing cruel and unusual punishment. (Brownstein
179) Early chain gangs were used only for economic gain. Convicts made money
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which helped to support themselves and were used as cheap labor. Rehabilitation was
not a concern back then. (Reynolds 181) Some people did worry about the bad
treatment of the convicts. Other people worried that convict labor took jobs from
average citizens. During the twenties workers in many jobs had decided to form unions
to protect their jobs from bad conditions. The unions that formed in the early twentieth
century also opposed the labor of chain gangs. The unions’ concerns and the inhumane
treatment caused the downfall of the convict lease system in the South by 1920.

(Reynolds 181) Private owners would no longer be able to lease prisoners.

During this time period cars and better transportation was becoming important.

The old lease system was replaced by the commonly known public works system. The
atmosphere of the country during the “Roaring Twenties” caused chain gangs to be used
on roads very often. (Reynolds 181) This revival would soon fall to another problem.

During the mid-1930’s the United States went into a severe depression. When
the Great Depression occurred many states passed laws to stop convict labor because it
took jobs from the public. (“Let the Prisoners Work” 14) Jobs were scarce and nobody
wanted a convict to take a job.

The percent of convicts working dropped dramatically in only four decades. An
escaped convict who wrote a book about the chain gang helped show everyone the
brutality of the chain gang. This, along with new food-making technology helped cause
another demise of the chain gang in the 1940’s. (Reynolds 183) With pressure from
labor and business interests, Congress had passed laws which dropped convict labor
from eighty-five percent in 1900 to forty-four percent in 1940. (Ingley 28) Those
numbers are still remarkably higher than the percentage of today.

From the 1940’s to today the percent of prisoners working steadily dropped. The
number of prisoners working has dropped from seventy-five percent in 1885 to almost
eight percent in 1995. (“Let the Prisoners Work” 14) The nineties brought about a new
type of thinking over crime and how to punish perpetrators. The public seems to be fed
up with crime. Many Americans now believe that prisons are not harsh enough to deter
crime. (Reynolds 183) Some people think that chain gangs will deter crime, but studies
show that they fail to deter. With longer sentences and more parole restrictions, people
are staying in prison longer, causing the population of prisons to quickly grow.

(Brownstein 179) Some people may argue though that no matter how harsh prisons
become, they will not be able to deter crime. The United States is now trying to bring
back chain gangs. (Reynolds 183) There are many reasons why people in the United
States want convicts to work.

America is tired of paying for prisons and the number of prisoners is growing so
much that inmates are having to pay for their prison stays. That is why “Prisons extract
money from their inmates by charging for court costs, imposing medical co-payments,
seizing prisoners assets, garnishing prisoners wages, and pursuing former prisoners for
the cost of their incarceration.” (Paventi 26) Prison officials were surveyed and were
found to believe that inmate work programs should be increased by 166 percent and
that inmates should pay at least three times more for their stay. (Ingley 28) It costs a
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large amount of money to build more room for the increasing number of prisoners and
the staff needed to watch them.

Statistics show that the prison population is growing faster than ever. The
population in prisons today is three-hundred percent more than it was in the seventies.

(Selke 1) Another statistic shows that the rate of increase is going to continue to grow.

“By the year 2002 the inmate population is expected to increase by another 43 percent.”
(M. O. Reynolds 58) Just the last eight years has shown that the prison population is
growing even when crime is going down. The prison population has almost doubled to
1.2 million since 1990. (“Let the Prisoners Work” 14) The result is an increasing
percentage of taxpayers money going to cover the rising population. Prisons cost
America twenty-five billion dollars a year which is about two hundred and fifty dollars
a year per family. (M. O. Reynolds 58) To some people this proves the need for convict
labor and chain gangs, but there are still many reasons against them.

Often chain gangs were so unbearable that inmates tried to escape. A Virginia
man who escaped from a chain gang in 1956 was caught by bounty hunters. Curtis
Brown had served two of his ten year burglary sentence when he escaped on June 5,
1956. Brown could not withstand the cruelty he went through in the chain gang. After
the escape he tried to live a normal life. The man had changed his name and began
raising a family with three children. When the bounty hunters caught him, Brown had
already been caught the prior year but had escaped. He seemed to have a bad habit of
trying to escape his punishment. He was caught last year, but fled on bond. (Johnson
Those people that argue prisons are not harsh enough, do not consider how
much some people suffer. Brown is hurt from asthma and high blood pressure. He also
is missing a kidney after being a victim of a mugging twenty years ago and he is also
sightless in one eye. His family is worried that the seventy-five year old man will die in
prison. (Johnson 20)
Corrections cost the United States twenty-five billion dollars a year, which gives
a need for inmates to earn wages and help pay for the cost of holding them. The
problem is that this may be threatening the jobs of average citizens. (Cohen 76) Even
though unemployment is extremely low at this time, people worry that the prison
industries will take many jobs from the uneducated and unskilled citizens.

By charging inmates for prison-construction costs, the public is happy their
taxes are not going to prisoners. “Tax payers like the idea that we don’t allow prisoners
to profit from their crimes,” says Attorney General Frank. (Paventi 26) Something that
many people do not know is that once prisons charge inmates for a stay one year, that
extra money is automatically deducted from the next budget. Some institutions are
finding that it may cost them more to charge inmates for their stay.

Some items that prisoners need, they have to pay for. American prisoners
usually have to pay for their own toiletries, under wear, socks, cigarettes, and stationery.

They also have to buy more food than what they are served just to live. (Paventi 26).

Some items like the cigarettes can be extremely expensive to get in prisons. This has
created severe problems of corruption in some prisons.

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A new way that some states are trying to save tax dollars is to charge for all
court costs. In Virginia if someone loses a jury trial, he or she must pay for the whole
trial. (Paventi 26) A man named Kenneth Stewart owes $57,756.20 for his trial.

(Paventi 27) He needs some teeth pulled too, which he must also pay for. (Paventi 26)
This proves that inmates have to work.

Since the inmates are not protected by most laws they can be paid extremely low
wages. The amount of money inmates are paid is much lower than minimum-wage. At
the Minnesota correctional facility, entry-level workers take home about forty cents per
hour. (Cohen 76) With such low pay prisoners have to work long hours to be able to
afford the expensive items that they need to live.

The biggest concern with convict labor is whether or not it takes average
citizens’ jobs. Many people worry that convict labor will take jobs, but many of the
tasks prisoners do, will not affect American jobs. People worry about a few million
prisoners getting jobs while over twenty-seven million people on welfare are being
forced to find jobs and nobody seems to worry about them. (Paventi 27) Most people
do not realize unemployment is low at this time.

Some benefits for allowing prisoners to work include: enhanced mental health,
reduced violence, more family support, preserved marriages, and increased restitution
to the victims of crime. (“Let the Prisoners Work” 14) Another good fact is that only
6.6 percent of convicts who worked in prisons had their parole revoked or were charged
with a crime during their first year of release. (M. O. Reynolds 58) This is lower than
the 10.1 percent of rearrest of prisoners who did not work in prison. (M. O. Reynolds
Alabama’s commisioner for prisons believes the prison industries has made a”life of luxury” for the inmates. She thinks a prison should be more harsh so it will
deter future crimes. The problem is that prisoners who do not work lose any hope and
are more likely to be hostile and later be rearrested. (Brownstein 179) Many experts
agree with this view. Ron Humphrey said that “prisoners need to work so they will not
go nuts”. Minnesota had one of the lowest rates of prison violence in the nation when
the inmates were working. (“Let the Prisoners Work” 14) Maybe if we concentrate on
keeping the prisoners from returning, we would not have to worry about our jobs being

Sometimes prison labor is not a good idea. Some issues like security problems,
high turnover, lack of skills, poor work habits and remote prison locations can make
prison labor more expensive. (M. O. Reynolds 58) Another problem includes
prejudices. Chain gangs are supposed to be well integrated, but in Alabama it is
common for a chain gang to be ninety percent black. (Brownstein 179) The prison
commissioner of Alabama thought about putting women in chain gangs after male
inmates filed a federal lawsuit claiming discrimination. (“Great Moments in Penology”
207) She almost lost her job because nobody else wanted women on chain gangs.

One way people are trying to stop chain gangs is to prove that they are
unconstitutional. Some people believe that chain gangs are humiliating and degrading
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to inmates, which is against the eighth amendment, preventing cruel and unusual
punishment. (Brownstein 179)
Many prisoners are illiterate and have lower Intelligence Quotients (IQ), which
poses a problem. Some of the jobs that inmates would do require a higher intelligence.

Most people in prisons did not make it far in school so they do not know how to do
much. Some prisoners with high IQ’s including counterfeiters, kidnappers, and drug
smugglers may be alright though. (M. O. Reynolds 58)
The jobs inmates do vary, but long hours seems to be common. Last year in
Alabama over seven hundred medium security prisoners were forced to work ten hours
a day breaking rocks and picking up trash along highways. If they are disobedient they
are handcuffed to a post with their arms raised in the air. (Brownstein 179) A prisoner
named Ron Humphey works an eight-hour day as a computer-systems manager and then
works another four hours after dinner. (“Let the Prisoners Work” 14) This is much
better than sitting around doing nothing to him. When most prisoners work they feel at
least some sense of worth, which raises their spirit.

For a long time prisoners have worked, but most of their labor was for the
government of nonprofit agencies. This was done to prevent competition between
inmates and the American public. That is why prisoners are known for producing
license plates. Currently there are enough people making license plates so other jobs are
needed. Some major companies are involved in the one-hundred plus companies that
have thousands of inmate employees in twenty-nine states. (Cohen 76)
The jobs that prisoners now do varies greatly. “Inmates in South Carolina make
lingerie for Victoria’s Secret and graduation gowns for Jostens.” Prisoners also wrap
software for Microsoft and make electronic circuit boards for IBM. (Cohen 76)
Research has shown that the imprisonment rates vary from state to state and
among the many different countries. This causes people to wonder what is being done
different. (Selke 4) Nobody can seem to figure out what is best for our prison system.

There is no clear answer to whether or not the United States should have convict labor.

There are several reasons that suggest we should have convict labor including: the good
emotional effect working has on inmates, the money taxpayers save because inmates
can pay for their stay, and the easier ability for inmates to find jobs after prison. There
are also many reasons to not have convict labor like: the chance that convict labor will
take jobs from average citizens, convict labor may actually cost more, and the
corruption and prejudice involved. This issue will continue to be argued each year as
prisons continue to grow.

Works Cited
Brownstein, Rhonda. “Chain Gangs are Cruel and Unusual Punishment.” Corrections
Today. (April, 1996): 179. Proquest. Online. Internet. 1998
Cohen, Warren. “Need Work? Go to Jail.” US News and World Report. December 9,
1996: 76-77
“Great Moments in Penology.” Fortune. (May 27, 1996): 207. Proquest. Online.

Internet. 1998
Ingley, Gwen Smith. “Inmate Labor: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” Corrections
Today. (February 1996): 28-31. Proquest. Online. Internet. 1998
Johnson, John H. “Man Who Escaped Virginia Chain Gang Back in Jail After 42
Years.” Jet. April 13, 1998: 20
“Let the Prisoners Work: Crime Doesn’t Pay, But Prison Labor Can Benefit Everyone.”
Christianity Today. (February 9, 1998): 14. Proquest. Online. Internet. 1998
Paventi, Christian. “Pay Now, Pay Later: States Impose Prison Peonage.”.

The Progressive. (July 1996): 26-30. Proquest. Online. Internet. 1998
Reynolds, Marylee N. “Back on the Chain Gang.” Corrections Today. (April 1996):
180-184. Proquest. Online. Internet. 1998
Reynolds, Morgan O. “The Economics of Prison Industries: The Products of Our
Prison.” Vital Speeches of the Day. (November 1, 1996): 58. Proquest. Online.

Internet. 1998
Selke, William L. Prisons in Crisis. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University
Press. 1993.

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