The Truth About Chain Gangs and Convict Labor


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.
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.