Between 1865 and 1928, African American orphaned children and “supposed” juvenile criminals made up a major percentage of white plantation laborers in the South.
Slavery continued after the Civil War in the form of convict leasing. Prisoners would be leased by southern states to private railways and big plantations. Many states benefited, but the inmates received no payment. Many of them were forced to work in hazardous, cruel, and perhaps fatal conditions. Thousands of African-Americans are thought to have been forced into what is now known as “slavery by another name” until the 1930s.
The convict lease system gave birth to the chain gang because there were no rules in place for the treatment of the inmates. The standard form of punishment was whipping. Whipping was intended to punish convicts for insubordination and attempting to flee, but it was also employed to maintain labor discipline, leading some to term the system, a new type of slavery.
The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was enacted in 1865, made slavery and involuntary servitude illegal. It did, however, exempt anyone who had committed a crime. The Southern state government created “Black Codes,” which made it illegal for black individuals to break curfew, not have evidence of work, loiter, and a variety of other infractions. The codes were designed to return black people to slavery.
By World War II, economic upheavals, industrialization, and political pressure had put an end to widespread convict leasing, but a hazardous loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment still allows for the enslavement of inmates in numerous governmental and private industries. In 2010, a federal court ruled that “prisoners have no enforceable right under the Constitution to be paid for their labour.”