Timeline

1866

November 12th, 1866

Texas Legislature Authorizes Leasing of State Prison Inmates for Profit

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.

After passing a law authorizing the leasing of jail inmates three days before, the Texas legislature on November 12, 1866, 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 convicts.

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

1976

November 12th, 1976

Race Riot at Georgia Prison Leaves Five Dead and 47 Injured

On November 12, 1976, a deadly race riot erupted at Reidsville State Prison, now known as Georgia State Prison, in Reidsville, Georgia. Just a few years prior, a federal judge had ordered the prison to desegregate inmate living quarters. According to newspaper reports at the time, the riot began when 50-75 white prisoners armed with shanks attacked a group of black prisoners; in the end, 47 prisoners were injured and five were killed. Prison officials blamed the incident on an argument between homosexual inmates.

In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Georgia state law requiring racial separation of prisoners at Reidsville (where 60-65% of prisoners were black). However, after an initial attempt at integration, the prison had repeatedly reverted to segregation in supposed efforts to cool racial tensions. At the time, ACLU of Georgia Director Gene Guerrero remarked, “It's the worst sort of cop-out – to lay the problems at Reidsville on integration.”

Following the November 1976 riot and several other incidents of deadly violence, U.S. District Judge Anthony Aliamo issued an order on July 3, 1978, to re-segregate dormitories at Reidsville for a period of 60 days. The common areas, such as the mess hall and recreation yard, were to remain integrated. When another deadly racial attack occurred in August 1978, the state successfully sought an extension of the re-segregation order, resulting in eight months of segregated dorms. At the time, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Offender Rehabilitation said that he thought the prison would have a “hard time going back” to integrated dormitories.