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I Centra Texas Gardener KLRU-TV, Austin PBS, creates innovative television that inspires and educates. KLRU-produced programs that air statewide on Texas PBS stations include Central Texas Gardener, Texas Monthly Talks and The Biscuit Brothers. Check your local listings. klru tv and beyond In the wake of the Civil War the Southern states had abundant agricultural lands and natural resources, large pools of black laborers whom white elites were accustomed to controlling as they saw fit, and very little else with which to rebuild the region’s economy. The South’s transportation network lay in ruins, its economy had never been sufficiently diversified to begin with \(at least compared to the Northeast were perennially poor. The convict lease seemed to present at least a partial solution to each of these problems. In 1866 the state of Texas passed its version of the “black codes:’ laws that coerced freed slaves into signing restrictive labor contracts and harshly curtailed their civil rights. Texas began its long and difficult experiment with prison privatization a year later, when two railroad companies began hiring state prisoners to clear land and lay track. The arrangement offered benefits to the cash-strapped state of Texas and the railroad companies desperately seeking labor. \(Not surprisingly, these benefits did not trickle down to the black civil rights and the practice of leasing convict labor to private interests were inextricably intertwined. Plantation owners and industrialists who owned slaves before the war were at least financially compelled to work their propertytheir slavesin such a way as to protect their investment. It soon became clear that those who leased the labor of black prisoners faced no such limits. If an individual or company could increase profits by skimping further on the living and working conditions provided for the convicts, strict capitalism dictated that they do so. In Texas, it was reported, leased convicts subsisted on “food buzzards would not eat.” One such prisoner likened the experience to being “buried alive … dead to the world.” For cash-poor state and local governments, convict leasing quickly proved itself as a revenue stream, and in no time at all the tail was wagging the dog. Blackmon documents case after case in which local plantation or business owners throughout the South approached local sheriffs with labor needs, and the sheriffs then rounded up large numbers of blacks to be convicted by justices of the peace in kangaroo courts and made available to the labor market. Local officials received commissions greater than their salaries for playing their roles, and by the late 1880s the state of Alabama was generating revenue from convict leasing that covered more than 10 percent of the state budget. Blackmon’s book tracks a series of outrages, but the most shameful aspect of case after case documented here is that so many leased convicts were originally arrested on misdemeanor charges, nearly all of which were trumped up to meet the needs of business concerns. Blackmon finds records of men who were arrested for such crimes as “abusive and obscene language bootlegging, petty theft, vagrancy, “selling cotton after sunset:’ bastardy, gambling, false pretense, adultery, and “disturbing females on a railroad car.” Blackmon estimates that as many as 200,000 Americans, more than 90 percent of whom were black, were sold into neoslavery. Many thousands of those were abused at the end of the whip or the waterboard \(yes, that Thousands more died in work accidents or from diseases such as pneumonia, black lung, tuberculosis, malaria and dysentery that were rampant in the work camps. When Blackmon calls this a “fullblown system of human trafficking:’ he isn’t exaggerating. The new slavery operated brutally, and in plain sight. The practice of the convict lease ebbed and flowed in Texas, but at its peak it helped modernize the state’s infrastructure on the cheap. \(Among other projects, state convicts quarried the limestone and provided the backbreaking labor for the construc1883 the state turned over its entire penitentiary operation at Huntsville to private interests in need of cheap, servile labor. Not coincidentally, the total number of incarcerated Texans increased roughly fivefold in the same period. Donald R. Walker, a history professor at Texas Tech, titled his history of the state’s criminal justice system in this era Penology for Profit with good reason. After 1883, Texas worked prisoners for profit on state-owned farms and resumed the practice of leasing convict labor out to individual business interests. In 1908 the San Antonio Express published a muckraking expos of the hellish living conditions endured by state prisoners under the convict lease system, and of the cronyism DECEMBER 12, 2008 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 27