This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Inmates Make War: Convict Labor at State Penitentiaries in the Antebellum and Civil War South, 1796-1865




Derbes, Brett

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation




Throughout the antebellum period, Southern state legislators sought to create financially self-sustaining penitentiaries that also reflected modern practice by encouraging inmate rehabilitation through silent reflection and physical labor. Prisoners provided a captive, reliable, and inexpensive workforce, but their use as labor attracted criticism from competing local artisans and mechanics’ organizations. This competition between costly private and cheap convict labor led to conflict that only abated temporarily when demand for prison goods increased during the Civil War. Workshops at state penitentiaries became major manufactories for the Confederate army, as well as citizens and slaves. Inmates spun millions of yards of cloth and assembled thousands of uniforms, shoes, tents, wagons, weapons, and other items. The hardships of war required unprecedented interstate cooperation between southern governors, which included exchanging prisoners and products. The Union army targeted Confederate penitentiaries for either occupation or destruction. The modern prison industrial complex maintains elements of the experimental southern prison workshops established over two centuries ago.