By David M. Oshinsky | | 320 pages
Published in April of 1997

SUMMARY: A history of another brutal part of America’s past that is glossed over Worse Than Slavery tells the story of convict leasing and Parchman State Penitentiary, a thinly veiled system of slavery, through the songs of convicts, court documents, and local newspapers.

“From its beginnings in Mississippi in the late 1860s until its abolition in Alabama in the late 1920s, convict leasing would serve to undermine legal equality, harden racial stereotypes, spur industrial development, intimidate free workers, and breed open contempt for the law,” writes author David M. Oshinsky. “It would turn a few men into millionaires and crush thousands of ordinary lives.”

After slavery ended in 1865 the southern economy needed cheap labor, but black people were free. Jim Crow laws were designed to get back control of the black population by filling jails. To get the workers back into the fields convict leasing was born where private companies could pay the government for the use of the prisoners.

This system resulted in the further degradation of black bodies because a leasee could easily be replaced. It was simply a matter of arresting another black person for any petty offense (true or not), holding a quick trial with all an white jury, convicting the black person, and then placing them in jail. After that, is was off to the cotton fields to work where many of the systems developed during slavery were still used. This system was known as the prison pipeline. The methods used to build the prison pipeline are a large part of the philosophy that America’s prisons and jails are built on.

“Despised, powerless, and expendable, he could be made to do any job, at any pace, in any location,” says Oshinsky.

After reading Worse Than Slavery, check out At the Hands of Persons Unknown by Philip Dray for a history of lynching – another part of American history that is ignored.

KEY QUOTE: “Convict leasing was not about justice, equal treatment, or making the punishment fit the crime. Convict leasing was about profits, brutality, and racist ideas.”

BONUS: Listen to Oshinsky talk about Parchman State Penitentiary on the Constitutional podcast. Listening to the recorded songs the convicts sang is worth the 53 minutes on its own. Highly recommended.

DID YOU KNOW?: Sunday to Saturday has a Good Reads page where we post all of the books we have read – even the ones that didn’t make the cut.

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BOOK: The Gospel in Color

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  1. Thanks for the recommendation! Some of the points seem briefly touched by the Netflix Documentary – 13th, would be adding this to my reading list to understand more about it


      1. Oh I did not notice the other recommendation for At the Hands of Persons Unknown – thanks for highlighting! I will check it out. Unfortunately I do not have any recommendations of books within this space, as I too am trying to educate myself more on the issue after watching the 13th.

        Though if you enjoy reading about how politics and economic systems contributes to wealth inequality, I
        would recommend reading ‘Why Nations Fail’. It’s also a pretty lengthy read, but it is eye opening and very thorough; with examples from all around the world across decades. They do also touch about how some parts of Africa remained poor for a long time through extractive systems put in place by the conquerors in the past. 🙂


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