Convicts are returning to farming – anti-immigrant policies are the reason

Prison inmates are picking fruits and vegetables at a rate not seen since Jim Crow.

Convict leasing for agriculture – a system that allows states to sell prison labor to private farms – became infamous in the late 1800s for the brutal conditions it imposed on captive, mostly black workers.

Federal and state laws prohibited convict leasing for most of the 20th century, but the once-notorious practice is making a comeback.

Under lucrative arrangements, states are increasingly leasing prisoners to private corporations to harvest food for American consumers.

Why now?

The U.S. food system relies on cheap labor. Today, median income for farm workers is US$10.66 an hour, with 33% of farm-worker households living below the poverty line.

Historically, agriculture has suppressed wages – and eschewed worker protections – by hiring from vulnerable groups, notably, undocumented migrants. By some estimates, 70% of agriculture’s 1.2 million workers are undocumented.

As current anti-immigrant policies diminish the supply of migrant workers (both documented and undocumented), farmers are not able to find the labor they need. So, in states such as Arizona, Idaho and Washington that grow labor-intensive crops like onions, apples and tomatoes, prison systems have responded by leasing convicts to growers desperate for workers.

The racist roots of convict leasing

Since Reconstruction, states have used prisoners to solve labor supply problems in industries such as road and rail construction, mining and agriculture. But convict leasing has also been a powerful weapon of white supremacy, and now, anti-immigrant sentiment.

After Emancipation, southern economies faced a crisis: how to maintain a racial caste system and a supply of surplus labor now that blacks were free.

Southern states passed vagrancy laws, Black Codes, and other legislation to selectively incarcerate freed slaves. For example, under Mississippi’s vagrancy law, all black men had to provide written proof of a job or face a $50 fine. Those who could not pay were forced to work for any white man willing to pay the fine — an amount that was deducted from the black man’s wage.

During the late 1800s, mass incarceration created an army of cheap labor that could be leased to private businesses for substantial profit. In 1886, state revenues from leasing exceeded the cost of running prisons by nearly 400%. Between 1870 and 1910, 88% of convicts leased in Georgia were black.

In this Library of Congress photo from 1903, juvenile convicts are shown at work in the fields, location unknown. Library of Congress/Detroit Publishing Co.

Populist response

But cheap convict labor also suppressed wages for free whites, and by 1900, poor whites began pushing back.

In 1904, James Vardaman was elected governor of Mississippi on a platform of returning whites to work and blacks to confinement. These populist white supremacist sentiments dovetailed with national economic concerns during the Great Depression, when agricultural failures led to widespread unemployment.

In the 1930s, the Ashurst-Sumners Act and accompanying state laws prohibited convict leasing and the sale of prisoner-made goods on the open market. Inmates still worked in agriculture, but the food they produced had to be consumed by other prisoners or state workers.

By the late 1970s, with growing competition from foreign manufacturing, U.S. companies sought out domestic sources of cheap labor.