Prisoner exploitation: forever the same

April 14, 1996|By Harold Jackson | Harold Jackson,sun staff

"Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice," by David M. Oshinsky. The Free Press. 297 pages. $25. Even with its horrific details of black convicts being tortured and lynched in the segregated South after the Civil War, the most disturbing aspect of this scholarly work by historian David M. Oshinsky isn't what it says about old times there.

Most striking is what Oshinsky's book indirectly says about today. It describes prison populations 75 and 100 years ago that included grossly disproportionate numbers of African-Americans, many of whom never would have been incarcerated were it not for the color of their skin. That story is as recent as yesterday's headlines.

The Sentencing Project, an advocate of alternatives to imprisonment, reported last year that one of every three young black men in this country is under the supervision of the criminal justice system - in jail, prison or out on parole. Five years ago, the ratio was one in four.

While much is being made about the pathologies that result in criminal behavior among today's African-American males in their 20s - poverty, lack of education and opportunity - there is also acknowledgment that police routinely look more closely at this group that fits their description of the usual suspects and, for that reason, more young black men are caught when doing wrong.

Oshinsky describes a post-Civil War South, where the motivation was slightly different but the result was the same. With slavery over, white men were enraged that the inferior Negro would consider himself an equal who might covet what had been theirs alone. They also wanted to maintain the cheap labor pool needed to pick cotton, mine coal and do other back-breaking work they didn't want to do.

The answer for them came in 1868 in the Yazoo Delta of Mississippi when Edmund Richardson contracted to take an overflow off the government's hands. It would pay him $18,000 a year for their maintenance and he would get to keep all profits derived from their labor. The era of convict leasing had begun.

By 1880, Richardson had amassed a fortune by subletting convicts, most of them black men. He owned banks, steamboats and railroads and controlling interest in Mississippi Mills, the largest textile plant in the lower South.

Leased convicts in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, Virginia, the Carolinas and Florida worked at everything from brick making to tunnel blasting to domestic service in homes. They built levees, cleared swampland and plowed fields. They worked from can't see in the morning until can't see at night.

They were ill-clothed, poorly fed, beaten severely and shot dead when they tried to escape.

Whenever additional labor was needed, law enforcement cracked down on black communities. Able men were arrested for minor crimes and on trumped-up charges that resulted in harsh sentences that put them on someone's chain gang. The number of state convicts in Mississippi quadrupled from 272 in 1874 to 1,072 by 1877. The increase was blamed on the inherent lawlessness of black people. Sound familiar?

"Worse Than Slavery" is important for what it says about America past, but also for what it tells us about America present. The convict leasing system is long gone. But the prison system is still being used to corral a segment of the population this nation obviously still fears.

Harold Jackson is an editorial writer at The Sun. In 1991, he won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing while working on the Birmingham Ala. News. As a reporter, he covered civil rights issues in Alabama.

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