On this dayJan 04, 1876

Mississippi Enacts Laws to Strengthen Convict Leasing

Image | State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

The Mississippi legislature of 1876, convened on January 4th, was the first to be controlled by former-Confederates since the end of the Civil War. Its members were elected on a promise to restore law and order through harsher penalties for “black lawlessness” in the state.

The lawmakers were encouraged by the recent success of convict-leasing pioneer Edmond Richardson in the Yazoo Delta region, who in 1868 had entered into a contract with the state to lease prisoners as labor to rebuild his lost cotton fortune. Many legislators saw the model as a perfect solution: convict leasing would simultaneously provide workers to the state’s labor-starved employers, earn revenue for depleted state coffers that could not otherwise afford to maintain the state prison, and provide a means of controlling the state’s recently-freed and largely impoverished black majority.

As a result, one of the new legislature’s first acts was to pass the “Pig Law,” which broadened “grand larceny”–an offense punishable by up to five years in state prison–to include theft of any farm animal or any property valued at ten dollars or more. White legislators knew the law would disproportionately affect the state’s black citizens, many of whom remained unemployed and resorted to robbing farms to feed themselves and their families. Within three years, the number of state convicts had tripled, from 272 in 1874 to 1,072 in 1877.

The Mississippi legislature soon also passed the Leasing Law, authorizing state prisoners to be leased to “work outside the penitentiary in building railroads, levees or in any private labor or employment.” The law formally codified the practice of convict leasing, and the legislature soon proceeded to lease more than 1000 of its prisoners–the vast majority of them black–in contracts to employers across the state.

Convicts leased to private employers regularly did hard, dangerous work in appalling conditions, sleeping on bare ground and often wearing nothing more than the tattered clothing in which they arrived. Like masters over the enslaved, employers had broad authority to whip convicts for offenses such as “slow hoeing,” “sorry planting,” and “being light with cotton.” Those who tried to escape were whipped until blood ran down their legs, and sometimes even had metal spurs riveted to their feet.

Under the lease system, employers also had little incentive care for the convicts; if one dropped dead of disease or exhaustion, a replacement was easily obtained from the local jail. “Before the war we owned the negroes,” one Southern employer explained in 1883. “If a man had a good [slave], he could afford to take care of him; if he was sick, get a doctor . . . But these convicts: we don’t own ‘em. One dies, get another.” In the 1880s, the annual mortality rate for Mississippi’s convict population was sometimes as high as 16 percent.

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