On this dayNov 12, 1866

Texas Legislature Authorizes Leasing State Prison Inmates for Profit

On November 12, 1866, the Texas legislature approved a law entitled “An Act to provide for the employment of Convict labor on works of public utility,” which empowered the state to employ or lease certain classes of prisoners to build railroads, work in mines, and staff iron foundries. Prisoners convicted of murder, arson, robbery, burglary, perjury, and horse stealing were exempt from the law and were required to serve their time in the state penitentiary as before; in effect, this classification of prisoners ensured that the vast majority of state inmates eligible to be leased were black.

Because the Thirteenth Amendment’s ban on slavery and involuntary servitude explicitly excepted convicted criminals from its protections, the predominately black populations ensnared by discriminatory criminal laws passed after the Civil War had no way to avoid being thrust back into the conditions of forced labor they had only recently escaped. Soon after the Civil War’s end, Texas was one of many states to pass laws making this arrangement possible.

Convict leasing became a very profitable enterprise for Texas and many other Southern states in the 19th and 20th centuries. The system proved very dangerous and even deadly for the black people forced to work in inhumane conditions that historian David Oshinsky has described as “worse than slavery.”

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