By Joe Atkins, Labor South
It all started in Mississippi. Of course.
Deprived of his slaves by the Confederacy's loss in the War Between the States, wealthy, politically connected cotton grower and railroad magnate Edmund Richardson needed cheap labor for the 25,000 acres of cotton spread across his 50 plantations in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta.
With the help of his political friends, he engineered a scheme in 1868 to lease former slaves who had become prison inmates after the war. He put them to work in his cotton fields and on his railroads and levees. He worked them hard and grew even richer. Federal and state authorities were so pleased with the agreement they even gave him money to cover transportation costs and other expenses.
The system quickly spread across the South, a region whose leaders have always loved cheap labor whether it be slave, indentured servant, sharecropper, tenant farmer, non-unionized cotton mill hand, or undocumented worker. And they love to work them hard, too. Conditions were so brutal by 1882 that nearly one-fifth of Mississippi's leased convicts died from overwork or related causes.
In 1906, Mississippi Gov. James K. Vardaman became so disgusted that he led a successful campaign to reform a system "rivaling in brutality and fiendishness, the atrocities of ... Torquemada" solely to benefit "some political dictator's Delta plantation."
Convict leasing across the land finally ended in 1928 when Alabama joined the rest of the nation and ceased the practice.
Enter Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a 21st century Republican who would've enjoyed sipping mint juleps with Edmund Richardson on the back veranda. After the legislature waged an Arizona-like assault on undocumented workers, the governor was bombarded by angry Peach State farmers who complained they stood to lose $300 million from the loss of labor in their fields.
That's when Deal came up with a "partial solution to our current status as we continue to move toward sustainable results with the legal options available."
Translation: Let's put a chunk of Georgia's 100,000 convicted criminals who are on probation to work on the farm. He instructed his commissioners of labor and agriculture to proceed.
Of course, making money on convicted criminals and prison inmates has become big business in modern-day America. The Corrections Corporation of America, which operates three of Mississippi's five private prisons, reported $1.6 billion in revenues in 2008. It's no accident that the growth of private prisons since the early-to-mid 1980s has paralleled a phenomenal growth in incarceration -- and correctional outlays.
The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Russia and China, both with long histories as police states, pale in comparison. Nowhere is incarceration more popular than in the Deep South. Mississippi ranks only behind Louisiana in the nation, and 67 percent of Mississippi's inmates are black.
"The majority of people incarcerated in private prisons are in the eleven states of the old Confederacy," write social activist Si Kahn and Elizabeth Minnich in The Fox in the Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy. "This keeps the South imprisoned in its own tragic history of building an economy on the backs of unfree people."
In neighboring Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal has proposed privatizing three state prisons as a money-saving measure. However, statistics show correctional spending -- here in Mississippi and across the nation -- has skyrocketed since the first private prisons appeared. Although some officials blame "truth-in-sentencing" and other tough-on-crime measures, the private prison industry lobbied hard for those same measures. In other words, "crime pays" for this particular industry.
Ron Welch, Jackson attorney and longtime defender of prisoner rights in Mississippi, says the state today actually compares well with other states in oversight of its private prisons. However, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and civil rights attorney Robert McDuff have filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of 13 inmates against the Walnut Grove facility to protest what they say are barbaric conditions. Walnut Grove is owned by the GEO Group of Florida.
Finding out what actually goes on inside private prisons is not always easy. In fact, Congress took up legislation in 2007 to place the industry under the purview of the Freedom of Information Act. Lobbying by industry leaders killed the bill.
"Roughly 25,000 federal criminal prisoners are jailed in private facilities at any given time," U.S. Rep. Tim Holden, D-Pa., said at the time. "Yet private prisons are not required to publicly disclose information about their facilities' daily operations."
New legislation was introduced this year and remains pending. The industry, I'm sure, is prepared.
By Joe Atkins, Labor South
Joe Atkins is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of "Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press." A veteran journalist, Atkins previously worked as the congressional correspondent with Gannett New Service's Washington bureau and with newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi.