The Atlantic’s CityLab presents the story of convict leasing, a system in which Southern states leased prisoners to private railways, mines, and large plantations, through a compelling online project by visual storyteller Ariel Aberg-Riger.
“It Didn’t Pump Itself” focuses on the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, which became wildly successful by forcing prisoners leased by the State of Alabama to work under inhumane and often deadly conditions in the coal mines under Birmingham.
Thousands of Black people were forced into what has been called “slavery by another name” after the Civil War.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865, prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude, but explicitly exempted those convicted of crime. In response, Southern state legislatures quickly passed “Black Codes” – new laws that explicitly applied only to Black people and subjected them to criminal prosecution for “offenses” such as loitering, breaking curfew, vagrancy, having weapons, and not carrying proof of employment. Crafted to ensnare Black people and return them to chains, these laws were effective; for the first time in U.S. history, many state penal systems held more Black prisoners than white – all of whom could be leased for profit.
Industrialization, economic shifts, and political pressure ended widespread convict leasing by World War II, but the Thirteenth Amendment’s dangerous loophole still permits the enslavement of prisoners who continue to work without pay in various public and private industries. As recently as 2010, a federal court held that “prisoners have no enforceable right to be paid for their work under the Constitution.”