1860s: Freedom at Last | 1870s: Representation | 1880s: Repression | 1890s: End of an Era | The Biographies | Conclusions


The 1880s: Convict Lease


Convicts working on the construction of the Capitol Convict laborers at work on the granite columns for the Texas State Capitol construction, circa 1885. Prints and Photographs Collection, Texas State Library and Archives.

After the Civil War, an increase in lawlessness in Texas led to an increase in convicts. This specifically affected African Americans because 50 percent of those incarcerated were African American, despite the fact that they only comprised 25 percent of the population.

The growth in the number of Texas inmates came at a time when there was no money in the state treasury to pay for their incarceration. Officials decided to lease the state penitentiary and convicts to private companies that used the prisoners to perform manual labor in exchange for room and board.

Expectedly, each contractor wanted to ensure the biggest profit from his investment. Convicts often were forced to work long hours with poor food and housing conditions. They were physically abused with minimal input or regulation from state officials. Although many African-American legislators fought against the convict lease system—including Representatives Asberry (who advocated prison farms), Bassett, Evans, Geiger, Kerr, Moore and R. Williams—the system remained in place until 1883.

It did not cease in order to alleviate the poor treatment of prisoners. Instead, the state, by resuming responsibility for the prison system (a branch penitentiary had recently been built at Rusk), could eliminate contractor management and enjoy large profits by leasing convicts directly to farmers and small businessmen. All leasing eventually ended in Texas by 1912.

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Page last modified: April 22, 2015