On this dayFeb 04, 1846

Alabama Begins Leasing Prisoners for Profit

Encyclopedia of Alabama, Birmingham Public Library Archives

The Alabama state legislature voted to construct the first state-run prison on January 26, 1839. In 1841, the Wetumpka State Penitentiary was built in Wetumpka, Alabama. The prison received its first inmate in 1842: a white man sentenced to 20 years for "harboring a runaway slave." In the antebellum penitentiary, 99 percent of inmates were white, as free Black people were not legally permitted to live in the state, and enslaved Black people were instead subject to unregulated “plantation justice” at the hands of enslavers and overseers.

The penitentiary was supposed to be self-sufficient, but soon proved costly as the prison industries of manufacturing wagons, buggies, saddles, harnesses, shoes, and rope failed to generate enough funds to maintain the facility. On February 4, 1846, the state legislature chose to lease the penitentiary to J.G. Graham, a private businessman, for a six-year term. Graham appointed himself warden and took control of the entire prison and its inmates, claiming all profits made from inmate labor and eliminating every other employment position except physician and inspector. Alabama continued to lease the prison to private businessmen until 1862, when warden/leaser Dr. Ambrose Burrows was murdered by an inmate.

This initial leasing of the prison and its inmates marked the beginning of the convict leasing system in Alabama, and that system was soon renewed. In 1866, after the end of the Civil War, the government again authorized inmates to be leased to work outside of the prison, and 374 prisoners were leased to the firm Smith & McMillen to work rebuilding the Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad. In this post-emancipation society, Black people were no longer enslaved, and the convict population that was formerly almost all white was now 90 percent Black. The system of convict leasing became one that forced primarily Black prisoners—some convicted of minor or trumped up charges—to work in hard, dangerous conditions for no pay. This practice continued until World War II.

Read Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon to learn more about how convict leasing enabled states and local governments to re-enslave and profit off of Black people criminalized by discriminatory laws.

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