On this dayNov 09, 1866

Texas Legislature Authorizes Leasing of County Jail Inmates for Profit

Rice University

On November 9, 1866, a Texas law entitled “An Act to provide for the employment of Convicts for petty offenses” was approved, authorizing county authorities to employ jailed men and women in public works and/or lease them out to private employers. These jailed workers were to receive a “wage” of $1 per day, applied toward unpaid fines or costs owed to the county. Just days later, the legislature passed another law, authorizing the leasing of state prisoners.

The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in December 1865, was then and is still today celebrated as the legislative act that ended American slavery. However, the amendment’s text includes an exception: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

In Southern states that had long relied on enslaved Black people to perform the agricultural work so critical to the region’s economy, emancipation upended the social, economic, and political systems. The abolition amendment's exception permitting the continued enslavement of people with criminal convictions, however, enabled the South to continue exploiting the labor of Black people, and many states seized that opportunity.

In addition to passing Black Codes that criminalized acts like unemployment and public assembly when committed by freedmen, many Southern states also passed laws authorizing the leasing of the larger, predominately Black convict populations these statutes created. Rather than create a financial burden for the state, increased prison populations could create profit. In Texas and throughout the South, these arrangements would prove profitable for the state and deadly for the workers, nearly all Black, who were forced to work in dangerous, inhumane conditions.

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