July 10th, 1887
Hinds County Grand Jury Reports Horrible Prison Conditions in Mississippi
On July 10, 1887, the grand jury of Hinds County, Mississippi, released a report revealing the horrific conditions faced by state prisoners under the convict leasing system, which permitted private companies to lease prisoners from the state for use as laborers.
The grand jury observed that many prisoners who had been leased were emaciated due to inadequate food provided by leasing companies. Most exhibited scars and blisters that were an indication of severe beatings. Many suffered from tuberculosis and some bore signs of frostbite. Of 204 prisoners leased in January 1887, twenty had died by June of the same year. Twenty-three additional leased prisoners were returned to the state penitentiary due to illness or disability, where they found no relief:
"We found twenty-six inmates of the hospital, of whom several have been lately brought there off the farms and railroads. Many of them are afflicted with consumption and other incurable diseases, and all bear on their persons marks of the most inhuman and brutal treatment. ... They are lying there dying, some of them on bare boards, so poor and emaciated that their bones almost come through the skin; many complaining for the want of food. ... One poor fellow burst out crying and said he was literally starving to death. We actually saw live vermin crawling over their faces, and the little bedding and clothing they have is in tatters and stuff with filth."
The grand jury’s report concluded, “God will never smile on a State that treats its convicts as Mississippi does.”
Similar convict leasing systems operated for decades in Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Most of the prisoners subjected to convict leasing were black and many were convicted of dubious offenses such as vagrancy or changing employers without permission. Because the Thirteenth Amendment permitted involuntary servitude as "punishment for crime," convict leasing was a legalized form of slavery that continued into the 1940s, forcing hundreds of thousands of African Americans to work under atrocious conditions at hundreds of sites throughout the South. For many of those leased, the sentence proved deadly.