November 9th, 1866

Texas Legislature Authorizes Leasing of County Jail Inmates for Profit

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in December 1865, was then and is still frequently 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 the system of slavery to provide a constant labor supply for performing the agricultural work on which the region’s economy was based and to buttress the social and political system of white supremacy, emancipation turned the system upside down. The constitutional provision permitting the continued enslavement of convicted criminals, however, provided a means of continued labor exploitation, and many states took it. 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, a law entitled “An Act to provide for the employment of Convicts for petty offenses” was approved on November 9, 1866, and authorized county authorities to employ jail inmates in public works and/or lease them out to private employers. Inmates were to receive a “wage” of one dollar 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 arrangements would prove profitable for the state and deadly for the convicts, nearly all black, who were forced to work in dangerous, inhumane conditions.