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Prisons: History

The Civil War And Its Aftermath

The prison camps of the Civil War proved to be incredibly lethal. According to official statistics compiled at the end of the war, the North held a total of 220,000 Confederates and the South held 126,000 Unionists. Estimates placed the number of prison dead at 30,212 for the Confederate prisons and 26,774 in the Union prisons. To put matters in perspective, roughly two and a half times as many soldiers were imprisoned as were involved in the Battle of Gettysburg, yet the prison camps claimed nearly ten times as many lives as did the battle.

Following Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (1863), the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was finally ratified in 1865. In language that mirrored the provisions of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the article outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude "except as punishment of crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." Consequently, although chattel slavery was finally abolished after more than two hundred and fifty years, penal slavery was formally embedded in the Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment still stands.

After the war, the victorious federal government initiated the policy known as Reconstruction in the vanquished South. Four million slave men, women, and children throughout the South had suddenly been freed, without compensation or support. Lawmakers in several southern states adopted so-called Black Codes that called for vagrants and other minor criminals to be imprisoned and put to work on public projects.

During slavery days, most southern prisons had remained predominantly white—the slaves being held on plantations—but after the war many institutions suddenly became overcrowded with newly freed blacks. States passed laws enabling convicts to be leased out to private companies. By the end of Radical Reconstruction, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Kentucky were leasing convicts. Soon conditions in southern prisons resembled those under chattel slavery.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPrisons: History - Early Jails And Workhouses, The Rise Of The Prisoner Trade, A Land Of Prisoners, Enlightenment Reforms