In the late nineteenth century, prisoners in Alabama, the vast
majority of them African Americans, were forced to work as coal
miners under the most horrendous conditions imaginable. Black
Prisoners and Their World draws on a variety of sources, including
the reports and correspondence of prison inspectors and letters
from prisoners and their families, to explore the history of the
African American men and women whose labor made Alabama's prison
system the most profitable in the nation.
To coal companies and the state of Alabama, black prisoners
provided, respectively, sources of cheap labor and state revenue.
By 1883, a significant percentage of the workforce in the
Birmingham coal industry was made up of convicts. But to the
families and communities from which the prisoners came, the convict
lease was a living symbol of the dashed hopes of
Indeed, the lease--the system under which the prisoners labored
for the profit of the company and the state--demonstrated Alabama's
reluctance to let go of slavery and its determination to pursue
profitable prisons no matter what the human cost. Despite the
efforts of prison officials, progressive reformers, and labor
unions, the state refused to take prisoners out of the coal
In the course of her narrative, Mary Ellen Curtin describes how
some prisoners died while others endured unspeakable conditions and
survived. Curtin argues that black prisoners used their mining
skills to influence prison policy, demand better treatment, and
become wage-earning coal miners upon their release.
Black Prisoners and Their World unearths new evidence about life
under the most repressive institution in the New South. Curtin
suggests disturbing parallels between the lease and today's
burgeoning system of private incarceration.
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