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Douglas Blackmon’s best-selling book Slavery by Another Name dispels one myth after another as he reveals the continuing of a system of slavery under a different name: convict leasing. This was a system whereby former black slaves were routinely rounded up on minor charges (or no charges at all) like vagrancy, placed in local county or town jails, brought to court and fined a small amount ($25 or $50). Since they could not pay the money (as they were too poor and were traveling from town to town looking for work) a local white farmer or businessman came into court and offered to pay their fine whereupon they became, in effect, the property the many who paid the fine. The convict had to work in order to pay the fine. This could take a long time, sometimes years. 

This was a source of cheap labor to help re-build the war-torn South. Hundreds of businesses, including the Tenn. Coal, Iron and Railway Company, a subsidiary of US Steel, were involved in the practice. As Blackmon documents from thousands of old records, virtually all counties had justices of the peace and sheriffs who collaborated with local businesses many felonies were reduced to misdemeanors so that the offenders would be sent to local jails and then to local businesses. Sheriffs got kickbacks and so were financially motivated to arrest and convict as many as they could — his job was more like trading mules than law enforcement. 

The convict lease system existed until around the time of World War II, but new forms of slavery took its place, including the notorious chain gang and the southern prison system, with numerous prisons known as plantation prisons.” Jim Crow laws continued on the books until the 1960s but since then there has become what Michelle Alexander accurately calls the New Jim Crow.”

Starting shortly after the end of the Civil War, when black slaves were supposedly granted their freedom, the overwhelming majority of those in southern prisons have been black males. This continues today. 

Recently there has been an 8‑part series of in-depth articles about the Louisiana prison system published in the Times-Picayune. The series documents a system that clearly shows that the system Blackmon wrote about is alive and well, although with a few news twists to the story. As noted by the first story in the series, Louisiana holds the distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world: 1,619 inmates per 100,000 residents (counting those awaiting trial in local jails). 

Times-Picayune writer Cindy Chang documents the connection with Blackmon’s book with the following words: 

The hidden engine behind the state’s well-oiled prison machine is cold, hard cash. A majority of Louisiana inmates are housed in for-profit facilities, which must be supplied with a constant influx of human beings or a $182 million industry will go bankrupt. Several homegrown private prison companies command a slice of the market. But in a uniquely Louisiana twist, most prison entrepreneurs are rural sheriffs, who hold tremendous sway in remote parishes like Madison, Avoyelles, East Carroll and Concordia. A good portion of Louisiana law enforcement is financed with dollars legally skimmed off the top of prison operations. If the inmate count dips, sheriffs bleed money. Their constituents lose jobs. The prison lobby ensures this does not happen by thwarting nearly every reform that could result in fewer people behind bars. 

Some counties have been leasing their prisons to private companies. LaSalle Corrections and LCS Corrections Services (two companies with headquarters in Louisiana) are among the companies involved. They are also major donors to political campaigns, including many sheriffs who gladly provide a steady supply of inmates. And the local prisons are run cheaply; at $24.39 per diem they rank the lowest in the nation. 

Concerning race, data dug up by reporters found that one in 14 black men from New Orleans is behind bars, compared with one in 141 white men; one out of every seven black men from the city is either in prison, on probation or on parole. 

This is not surprising since Louisiana ranks with Mississippi for the worst schools, the most poverty, the highest infant mortality. One in three Louisiana prisoners reads below a fifth-grade level. The vast majority did not complete high school. The easy fix of selling drugs or stealing is all too tempting when the alternative is a low-wage, dead-end job” writes Chang. 

Space does not permit a complete analysis and summary of this 8‑part series. It is worth reading, however, as it illustrates how the legacy of slavery lives on in Louisiana. I hope to share more of the findings from this and other research on this topic in subsequent blogs.