This activity guide examines the past and present use of prison labor and its economic implications. Students will investigate the role that state governments, legislation and private corporations played in increasing the use of prison labor after the Civil War, as well as analyze similarities and differences between the use of prison labor then and now. BACKGROUND Throughout the 1800s, different efforts were made to oppress and disenfranchise blacks in the South. Immediately after the Civil War ended, Southern states enacted “black codes” that allowed African Americans certain rights, such as legalized marriage, ownership of property, and limited access to the courts, but denied them the rights to vote, to testify against whites, to serve on juries or in state militias, or start a job without the approval of their previous employer. With the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments during Reconstruction, these codes were repealed as African Americans were granted the rights of citizenship, including the right to vote.But with the end of Reconstruction in 1877, Southern states began stripping African Americans of their rights and enacted laws that effectively criminalized black life. So called “pig laws” established harsh penalties for petty crimes such as stealing a pig or a fence rail. Vagrancy laws made it illegal to be unemployed. Harsh contract laws penalized anyone attempting to leave a job before an advance had been worked off. Because of these laws, which stayed on the books for decades and were expanded once the Jim Crow era began, the numbers of African Americans in prison rose dramatically. The growing numbers of people arrested, convicted and sent to prison posed another problem. After the Civil War, the South’s economy, society, and government were in shambles. The prison problem was especially challenging, as most prisons had been destroyed during the war. Previously, African American slaves had been subjected to punishments at the hands of their owners. With government ineffectiveness and an increase in both white and black lawlessness, the problem of where and how to house convicts was significant.
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