Pusha T & Ava DuVernay Discuss the Importance of ’13th’ Documentary | Complex –view interview
Eva DuVernay’s new documentary film, 13th,  speaks to so many of the issues that have emerged in our ongoing public Mass Incarceration series, here at the YWCA Southern Arizona.The Next Session will take place on Wednesday, November 16th from 6-8pm at our Frances McClelland Community Center, 525 N. Bonita Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85745.Our last speaker of the 2016 cycle, will be Caroline Isaacs of the American Friends Service Committee.  She will be speaking about Sentencing Reform.
We hope that you will join us for this conversation if you are able.

A Brief History of the Convict Lease System:
A Precursor to our Modern Prison Slavery System

Much of the discourse going on at the YWCA of Southern Arizona is about the current prison system and the exploitation of prisoners for free labor. This current issue mirrors the often hidden history of the convict lease system that occurred after the Civil War in the period from 1865 to 1928.

The 13th amendment abolished slavery however; this would be undermined in a variety of ways. One of the ways it was undermined was by the prison system because of a clause in the 13th amendment. The 13th amendment states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been dully convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”[1]. The 13th amendment made it perfectly legal to use convict labor, another form of slave labor.

Prisons had been virtually destroyed by the Civil War. Thus, southern governments came up with the convict lease system, a system where they leased out convicts to corporations to use for free labor. This could be a brick factory, a coalmine, a railroad system, or even a farm. Once leased business owner controlled the convict’s life and they could do anything they wanted to the convict. The injustices suffered within the convict lease system were equal to those suffered by slaves before the war[2].  And make no mistake these convicts were primarily African American.

But it’s okay because they were criminals, right? Most of the convicts were not in fact, criminals. The “Black Codes”, were a series of laws passed after the Civil War. These laws restricted the activity of African Americans and they could and would be imprisoned for frivolous offenses. Bernard Kinsey, a descendent, describes the convict lease system saying, “And when I say convict I don’t even mean convict, I mean people who did no more than walk down the street and were picked up when the magistrate was coming tomorrow”[3]. In other words, normal behavior was criminalized for African Americans. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans were exploited with the convict lease system.

It is important to be aware of this because many people think slavery died with the 13th amendment and the Civil War. That is not the case; it has existed in our country for decades and continues to exist in our current prison system to this day. We need to examine history to be able to examine where we stand today.


[1] http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/13thamendment.html

[2] http://www.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/themes/convict-leasing/

[3] http://www.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/themes/convict-leasing/


Valerie Denogean

Valerie Denogean is MSW PAC student at ASU. She was born and raised in Tucson. She is interested in prison-reform, immigration, education-reform, politics, inequalities because of race and gender. However, currently she is interested in Eco-Feminism and how the treatment of women connects with the state of the environment, the treatment of animals, and our food. Valerie likes to run, hike and swim. She swam competitively for the Guilford College Quaker Swim team. She likes to travel and hopes to use her Social Work Degree in Northern Virginia after graduation.

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