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The silent South, together with the freedman's case in equity and the convict lease system online

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can be to be employed within the penitentiary
walls. Two different reports of the directors,
covering a period of four years, impress their
reader as the utterances of men of the best dis-
position, sincerely desiring to promote humanity
and the public good, but handicapped, if not
themselves in some degree misled, by the error
of making self-support the foremost considera-
tion in all their estimates of prison methods.



" To provide for their employment, so that they
will cease to be a burden upon the taxpayers of
the country" would be counted a strange propo-
sition to apply to courts, schools, or police, yet is
assumed by them, as a matter of course, to be
applicable to prison populations, and so becomes
the barrier from which they recoil, and which
they have allowed to throw them back into the
mire of the lease system. " This problem," they
say, " has long engaged the attention of philan-
thropists and statesmen." But they mistake.
The real problem that has engaged such is, How
to procure the most honorable and valuable re-
sults, and to pay for them whatever is necessary
and no more. It was, unfortunately, under the
shadow of these mistakes that the Texas board
went so far as to " consider very seriously as to
whether it should not adopt the Public Accounts
or the Contract System," only to reject the one
and to fail to get bids on the other. As a result
the State stands to-day bound, for fourteen years
to come, by the Lease System, the worst prison
system in Christendom, a system that cannot be
reconciled with the public honor, dignity or wel-
fare. The board intimates plainly that this Lease
System is not its choice, or at least would not be
but for the nightmare of self-support. As it is,
they strive to make the best of a bad matter.
How bad it has been and is, a few facts will show. 1
It is said of the Huntsville penitentiary, Texas
1 The Legislature has rejected and annulled this lease, but


(an additional one has just been built at Rusk),
that it was built " on the old plan, looking alto-
gether to security, and without any regard to
proper ventilation or the health or comfort of the
inmates, . . . the cell buildings ... to a consider-
able extent cut off from light and air, and in
constant danger of destruction from fire." The
prison board erected a new cell building to take
its place, in which each cell has a cubic content
of 384 feet, and, says the board, " can comfortably
accommodate two men." This gives each occu-
pant an air space one-quarter of the minimum
necessary to health. Yet this was a great im-
provement. It may be mentioned in passing,
as an incident very . common under the Lease
System, that about the same time a lot of ma-
chinery, the property of the State, valued on the
inventory of one lessee after another at $11,600,
was sold for $68 1, and the proceeds laid out in
fifty-one breech -loading, double-barreled shot-
guns. The following is from the superintendent's
biennial report of October 31, 1880: "The most
usual mode of punishment practiced at outside
camps is by stocks. . . . Most of the sergeants,
in order to make it effective/have lifted the con-
victs on the ball of the foot, or tiptoe, . . .
jeopardizing not only health but life. The [pres-
ent] lessees . . . abolished the use of stocks at

under a public accounts system has retained the most odious
features of the Convict Lease System.


their wood camps, and I rejoice that you [the
directors] have determined to abolish them alto-
gether. On many of the farms sergeants have
been in the habit of ... whipping, as well as
permitting their guards to do so, without first
obtaining an order from the board of directors,
as required by law." Of illegal punishments he
says : " We have been compelled to discharge
sergeants and a great number of guards on
account of it. ... I am satisfied that many
escapes have been caused by illegal punishments
and by cursing and threats." The spirit of this
officer's report does him honor throughout.

One can turn again only to leased prisons else-
where, to find numbers with which to compare
the ghastly mortality of some of these Texas
convict camps. Men in large numbers, "who
have contracted in the miserable jails of the
State incurable diseases, or whose systems have
been impregnated with diseases from having led
lives of debauchery and dissipation, are put to
the hardest manual labor and . . . soon break
down in health." " Sick convicts are crowded
into the same building containing well convicts,
and cannot have proper nursing and quiet, even if
they have good medical attention." " Frequently
sergeants, believing that convicts are trying to
play off, have kept them at work when, in fact,
they were seriously ill, ... or have tried to
physic them themselves." On railroad con-



struction the average annual rate of mortality,
for 1 879 and 1 880, was 47 to the thousand, three
times the usual death-rate of properly managed
American prisons ; at plantation labor it was 49 ;
at the iron-works it was 54; and at the wood-
cutting camps more than half the entire average
population died within the two years. So much
as to the rate. The total number of deaths in the
period was 256, of which only 60 occurred in
the prison hospital, the rest in the camps. Nor
was any considerable fraction of them by con-
tagious diseases. They were from congestions
of the brain, the stomach, and the bowels ; from
scurvy, dropsy, nervous fever, malaria, chronic
diarrhoea, general debility, pneumonia. Thirty-
five died of gun-shot wounds, five of " wounds
miscellaneous." Of three, the cause of death was
"not stated." Three were drowned, four were
sunstruck, two committed suicide, and two were
killed by the explosion of a boiler. And all
was reported without a word of apology or
explanation. The whole thirty-five who were
shot to death were shot in attempting to escape
" from forces at work outside the prison walls."
" In nearly all these cases the verdict of a coro-
ner's jury has stated that the guard acted in dis-
charge of his duty." As to the remainder, we
know not what the verdicts were or whether
there were any ; nor do we know how many vain
attempts were made to escape; but we know


that, over and above the deaths, there were
treated in the prison hospital where so few of
the outside sick ever arrived fifteen others with
gunshot wounds and fifty-two with " wounds mis-

We know, too, by the record, that four men
did escape from within the prison walls, and three
hundred and sixty-two from the gangs outside.
In the interest of the Texas taxpayer, from
whom the Lease System is supposed to lift an
intolerable burden, as well as for society at large,
it would be well to know what were the favorite
crimes of these three hundred and sixty-six
escaped felons (since unreformed criminals gen-
erally repeat the same crimes again and again),
what moral and material mischief one hundred
and twenty-three of them did before they were
recaptured, and what the record will be of the
two hundred and forty-three remaining at large
when the terms they should have served have
expired. These facts are not given ; we get
only, as it were, a faint whiff of the mischief in
the item of $6900 expended in apprehending one
hundred of them.

And yet this is the operation of the Lease
System under a Governor who was giving the
State prison and its inmates a far more rational,
humane, and diligent attention than is generally
accorded them by State executives, albeit such
officers are not as negligent in this direction as



they are generally supposed to be ; under a war-
den, too, who, if we read rightly between the lines
of his report, is a faithful and wise overseer ; and
even under lessees whom this warden commends
as "' kind and humane gentlemen." We have both
the warden's and the directors' word for it, that
this disciplinary and sanitary treatment of the
convicts was " a very decided improvement " on
what it had been. The question remains, What
may the system do where it is a State's misfor-
tune to have a preoccupied Governor and unscru-
pulous prison lessees ? It is a positive comfort
to know that for two years more, at least, the
same officials and lessees remained in charge,
that a second prison was added to the old one
and a third projected, and that the total mortality
was reduced by the abolition of the wood-cutting

But it is far otherwise to know by the report
for 1881-82 that the death-rate is still enormous,
and has increased in the prison and in most of
the camps; that the number of men committed
to hospital with gunshot and " miscellaneous "
wounds was fifty-two ; that in the mortality lists
are three suicides, six sun-strokes, and thirty-six
victims of the breech-loading double-barreled
shot-guns; that there passed through hospital
fifty-one cases of scurvy ; and that there were
three hundred and ninety-seven escapes and but
seventy-four recaptures.


It may be enough attention has already been
given to chaplains' reports in these so-called peni-
tentiaries, but the one for the Texas prison com-
pels at least a glance. It makes sixteen lines of
letter-press. White men's prayer-meeting on
Sunday at one hour, colored men's at another,
general Sunday-school at another, preaching at
another. These services are believed to have
been fruitful of good ; it is hoped " that some
will leave the prison reformed men " ; but there
is not the record of one positive result, or a single
observation registered looking to the discovery
of a result, either intellectual, moral, or religious,
concerning hundreds of men whose even partial
reformation would be worth to the State if it
must be reduced to money value tens of thou-
sands of dollars. Two lines of the report are
certainly unique : " We endeavor to enlist all the
men in this service [the Sunday-school] we can,
and try to suppress all differences of opinion
which are calculated to engender strife."

A single ten thousand dollars is the State's
annual share in what are called the profits of this
system of convict control. Were the convicts
managed under the Public Accounts System at
an annual loss of a like amount (which need not
be), making a difference of twenty thousand dol-
lars, and were the burden lifted from the mass of
the one million six hundred thousand inhabitants
of Texas and thrown entirely upon the shoulders


of one hundred thousand tax-payers, it would be
just one dime a year to each shoulder. But it
would save the depredations of nearly two hun-
dred escaped convicts per year, whatever they
might be ; such reprisals as about four hundred
others, annually liberated and turned loose upon
society, may undertake as an offset for the foul
treatment they have undergone in the name of
justice, and the attendant increase in the expenses
of police ; and the expenses of new trials and
convictions for the same old crimes committed
over again by many who might have in whole or
in some degree reformed, but instead were only
made worse. And two things more it would
save the honor of the State and the integrity of
the laws and of the courts. For one thing, how-
ever, the people of Texas are to be congratulated :
that they have public servants ready let the
people but give the word to abjure the Lease
System with all its horrid shams and humiliating
outrages, and establish in its place a system of
management that shall be first honorable and
morally profitable, and then as inexpensive as
may be.




Something like the same feeling was displayed
by the Governor and some others in the State of
Alabama in 1882. In the matter of its peniten-
tiary and convict camps, it is not necessary to
weary the eye again with figures. Between the
dates of the last two biennial reports (1880 and
1882) a change of administration took place in
the prison management, affording, by a compari-
son of the two reports, a revelation that should
have resulted in the instant abolition of the Lease
plan at any cost. Under date of October, 1880,
the penitentiary inspectors reported to the Gov-
ernor that the contractors (lessees) had " provided
strong prisons for the safe-keeping and comfort of
the convicts " ; that these prisons had " generally
been neatly kept," and that they themselves had
" required much attention to be given to the
sanitary regulations of them." They admitted
the fact of considerable sickness at one or two
places, but stated that two of the inspectors had
visited the convicts employed there and " found
the sick in a comfortable hospital, with medi-
cal attendance, nurses, and everything needed for
their comfort." They reported their diligent
attention to all their official duties, and stated,
as from their own knowledge, that during the two
years then closing the convicts had " generally
been well clothed and fed, and kindly and


humanely treated; and that corporal punishment
had only been inflicted in extreme cases." They
closed with the following remarkable statement :
" Notwithstanding our report shows a decrease
of one hundred and fourteen convicts, . . . yet
we think . . . the future of this institution is
brighter than its past." There had been paid
into the State treasury forty-eight thousand dollars,
and the managers in general were elated. But a
change in the prison's administration added a diff-
erent chapter, and in 1882 a new warden wrote :

" I found the convicts confined at fourteen different prisons
controlled by as many persons or companies, and situated at as
many different places. . . . They [the prisons] were as filthy, as
a rule, as dirt could make them, and both prisons and prisoners
were infested with vermin. . . . Convicts were excessively and,
in some instances, cruelly punished. . . . They were poorly
clothed and fed. . . . The sick were neglected, insomuch that
no hospital had been provided, they being confined in the cells
with the well convicts. . . . The prisons have no adequate water
supply, and I verily believe there were men in them who had
not washed their faces in twelve months. ... I found the men
so much intimidated that it was next to impossible to get from
them anything touching their treatment. . . . Our system is a
better training school for criminals than any of the dens of
iniquity that exist in our large cities. . . . To say there are any
reformatory measures used at our prisons, or that any regard is
had to kindred subjects, is to state a falsehood. The system is a
disgrace to the State, a reproach to the civilization and Christian
sentiment of the age, and ought to be speedily abandoned."

Almost the only gleams of light in these dark
pictures are these condemnations of the system by


those whose official duties require them to accom-
modate themselves to it, but whose humanity,
whose reason, and whose perception of the pub-
lic's true interest compel them to denounce it
This is again pointedly the case.


There the State prison has been for a long time
managed on Public Accounts ; but the manage-
ment was only a mismanagement and a neglect ;
and when this came to be known, those in author-
ity, instead of trying to correct the needless abuse
of a good system, rejected the system itself and
adopted the contract system. The report of the
prison board for the year ending September 30,
1 88 1, indicates that the change was made mainly,
and probably only, on pecuniary considerations,
and there seems to be reason to fear that this nar-
row view is carrying sentiment downward toward
the Lease System itself. The board reports itself
" pleased to discover, for the first time, that the
general agent has reached the conclusion that
the ' best way to make it [the prison] self-sustain-
ing would be to lease the convict labor.' " At
.the date of this report the mischievous doctrine
had already made its way through the Legisla-
ture and into the convict management ; and the
prison becoming over-crowded, a large company
of prisoners were leased to certain railroad com-
panies, beyond the control of the penitentiary


superintendent. A glance at the surgeon's report
shows one of the results of this movement. In
the population within the prison, averaging about
600, the death-rate was i y 2 per cent. ; while
among the 260 convicts on the Richmond and
Alleghany Railroad it was nearly 8^ per cent,
even after leaving out of count certain accidental
deaths that legitimately belong to the perils of
the work and really should be included in the
count. Including them, the rate would be 1 1 per
cent. The superintendent does not withhold his
condemnation : " The system of leasing," he says,
" as is clearly shown by the statistics of the few
governments, State and foreign, where it prevails,
is barbarous in the extreme, and should be dis-
countenanced. The dictates of humanity, if no
other consideration prevailed, should be sufficient
to silence any effort to establish this system of
prison management in Virginia."



Even where the system enjoys the greatest
favor from the State governments whose responsi-
bilities in the matter it pretends to assume, it is
rare that there is not some one who revolts and
utters against it his all too little heeded denunci-
ation. Such voices are not altogether unheard
even in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana,


where undoubtedly the lessees are more slackly
held to account, as they more completely usurp
the State's relation to its convicts, than elsewhere.
It is here may be found a wheel within this
wheel ; to wit, the practice of sub-leasing. So
complete in these regions is the abandonment, by
the State, of all the duties it owes to its criminal
system, that in two instances, Arkansas and
Louisiana, it does not so much as print a report,
and the present writer is indebted entirely to the
courtesy of the governors of these two States for
letters and manuscript tables imparting the infor-
mation which enables him to write. " The State,"
says the clerk of the Louisiana penitentiary, " has
no expense except keeping the building in re-
pair." " The State," writes the governor's secre-
tary in Arkansas, " is at no expense whatever."
In Mississippi, the terms of the present lease
make no mention whatever of any moral, relig-
ious, or educational privilege, or duty. "All
convicts sentenced for a period of ten years or
less, said lessees may work outside the peniten-
tiary, but within the limits of the State of Mis-
sissippi, in building railroads, levees, or in any
private labor or employment" One of the effects
of such a rule is that a convict condemned to
thirty or forty years' service, being kept within
the walls, has fully three chances to one of out-
living the convict who is sentenced to eight or
ten years' service, and who must, therefore, work



outside. Yet it is not intended to imply that the
long-term convict inside the prison is likely to
serve out his sentence. While among a majority
of commitments on shorter periods, men, women,
and children are frequently sentenced for terms
of 15, 20, 30, 40, and sometimes even of 50 years,
a prisoner can rarely be found to have survived
ten years of this brutal slavery either in the
prison or in the convict camp. In Alabama, in
1880, there were but three who had been in con-
finement eight years, and one nine ; while not
one had lived out ten years' imprisonment. In
Mississippi, December i, 1 88 1, among 77 convicts
then on the roll under 10 years' sentence, 17
under sentences of between 10 and 20, and 23
under sentences of between 20 and 50 years, none
had served 1 1 years, only two had served 10, and
only 3 others had served 9 years. 1 There were
25 distinct outside gangs, and their average
annual rate of mortality for that and the previous
year was over 8 per cent.

During the same term, 142 convicts escaped;
which is to say that, for every four law-breakers
put into the penitentiary, one got away; and
against the whole number so escaping that were
but 25 recaptures. The same proportion of

1 From the nature of the tabulated roll, the time served by
those under life sentences could not be computed ; but there is
no reason to suppose it would materially change the result, were
it known.



commitments and escapes is true of the Arkansas
prison for the year ending the 3Oth of last April.
In Louisiana the proportion is smaller, but far
from small. A surer escape in Louisiana was to
die; and in 1881, 14 per cent, perished. The
means are wanting to show what part of this
mortality belongs to the penitentiary at Baton
Rouge and what to the camps outside ; but if
anything may be inferred from the mortal results
of the Lease System in other States, the year's
death-rate of the convict camps of Louisiana
must exceed that of any pestilence that ever fell
upon Europe in the Middle Ages. And as far
as popular rumor goes, it confirms this assump-
tion on every hand. Every mention of these
camps is followed by the execrations of a scan-
dalized community, whose ear is every now and
then shocked afresh with some new whisper of
their frightful barbarities. It is not for the pres-
ent writer to assert, that every other community
where the leasing of convicts prevails is moved
to indignation by the same sense of outrage and
disgrace ; yet it certainly would be but a charitable
assumption to believe that the day is not remote
when, in every such region, the sentiment of the
people will write, over the gates of the convict
stockades and over the doors of the lessees'
sumptuous homes, one word : Aceldama the
field of blood.




There never was a worse falsification of
accounts, than that which persuades a commu-
nity that the system of leasing out its convicts
is profitable. Out of its own mouth by the tes-
timony of its own official reports what have we
not proved against it? We have shown:

1. That, by the very ends for which it exists,
it makes a proper management of prisons impos-
sible, and lays the hand of arrest upon reforma-
tory discipline.

2. That it contents itself, the State, and the
public mind, with prisons that are in every way
a disgrace to civilization.

3. That in practice it is brutally cruel.

4. That it hardens, debases, and corrupts the
criminal, commited to it by the law in order that,
if possible, he may be reformed and reclaimed
to virtue and society.

5. That it fixes and enforces the suicidal and
inhuman error, that the community must not be
put to any expense for the reduction of crime
or the reformation of criminals.

6. That it inflicts a different sentence upon
every culprit that comes into its clutches from
that which the law and the court has pro-
nounced. So that there is not to-day a single
penitentiary convict, from the Potomac around
to the Rio Grande, who is receiving the sentence



really contemplated by the law under which he
stands condemned.

7. That it kills like a pestilence, teaches the
people to be cruel, sets up a false system of
clemency, and seduces the State into the com-
mittal of murder for money.

8. That in two years it permitted eleven hun-
dred prisoners to escape.

Which of these is its profitable feature ? Will
some one raise the plea of necessity ? The
necessity is exactly the reverse. It is absolutely
necessary to society's interests and honor that
what the Lease System in its very nature forbids
should be sought ; and that what it by nature
seeks should be forbidden.


There are two or three excuses often made
for this system, even by those who look upon it
with disfavor and protestations, and by some
who are presumably familiar with the facts con-
cerning convict management in other States and
other countries. But these pleas are based upon
singularly unfounded assumptions. One is that
the States using the Lease System, in whole or
part, have not those large prison populations
which are thought to be necessary to the suc-
cessful operation of other systems. In point of

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Online LibraryGeorge Washington CableThe silent South, together with the freedman's case in equity and the convict lease system → online text (page 10 of 13)