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Explore the Constellation

Convict Labor


The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime.” Because of this exemption clause, men and women convicted of crimes could be leased by local authorities as laborers, often for difficult and dangerous work that resulted in high death rates. Supported by laws in southern states, this system of labor was called convict leasing. By the 1880s, convict leasing had become an important source of labor in southern states. Those convicted were often chained together while building roads, digging ditches, or working on railroads. These groups of convicts came to be known as "chain gangs."