Looking Back: Convict Leasing and the Trusty System

In the convict camp in Greene County, Georgia, in 1941 (Jack Delano, Library of Congress)

Over the past four decades, the U.S. has established a carceral state that rivals any other western nation. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, more than 2.3 million Americans are under some form of carceral supervision—jail, prison, probation, or parole—and those numbers have yet to see a dramatic decrease despite various attempts at reform. Robert T. Chase’s brilliant volume We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners’ Rights in Postwar America, offers an analysis of the evolution in Texas prison management and subsequent resistance and revolution within that system from the Cold War-era to the 1980s.

Chase’s work is unique in that it places sexuality as the central lens for analysis. In Part One, “A Biography of State Violence in Coerced Labor,” Chase examines the southern shift from dormitory-style penal farms to cellblock housing found in northern prisons (103). Reformers expected the cellblock-style housing, merged with the southern labor system of previous years, to produce a lucrative carceral agribusiness. However, Chase argues that these “reforms” led to a hierarchical labor and economic system within the prison that fueled “state-sanctioned sexual abuse” within the incarcerated population (3). The new structure relied on the use of “building tenders” (BTs) to regulate prison labor. These BTs, also known as “trusties,” were incarcerated men considered to have good conduct records and suitable for supervisory roles over other incarcerated bodies. Selection as a BT came with the benefit of a higher degree of mobility within the prison, the possibility of early release or pardon, and new levels of power and control of the internal prison economy and the sexual abuse and trade of other incarcerated people (104).

Edward Ayers’ Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth-Century American South (1984) was among the first historical analyses of the nineteenth-century penal system and scholars have since taken firm looks at the connections between race, gender, and the rise of convict leasing after Reconstruction. Popular perspectives of mass incarceration have expanded Ayers’ argument and centered largely on the criminalization and subsequent incarceration of African-Americans in the Deep South. Chase’s study, while rooted in the mid-twentieth century, hearkens back to a similar structure in nineteenth-century Kentucky. While much of the scholarship on the carceral state centers on the Deep South, many of these reforms were in existence in the Upper South during the antebellum era. The Kentucky State Penitentiary (KSP) was established in 1798 at Frankfort, the state capital, and the institution also served as the county jail. Unlike the plantation and penal farms of the Deep South, the Kentucky prison was a brick and mortar structure similar to Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary. KSP’s early prison management mimicked New York’s Auburn Reformatory. The high cost of building maintenance, daily management of incarcerated people, an excessive amount of escapes, and persistent increases in security staff led the General Assembly to find new, more fiscally efficient ways to govern the penal institution. As a result, the state legislature instituted the lessee and convict leasing systems as early as 1825.

Kentucky’s southern identity is often argued, but the state occupied a unique position during the Civil War era as border-slave state that remained in the Union. Kentucky’s lessee system served as a model for the Deep South in two ways: first, the lessee created a profitable connection between the state government and private industry, and second, prison industry worked in tandem with slavery, similar to how the southern cotton industry worked with textile mills in the North. In addition to manufacturing initiatives inside the institution, Kentucky’s incarcerated population worked outside the prison walls, primarily engaged in state construction on projects such as the new state capitol building and improvements to the governor’s residence. The advent of the lessee system increased the number of incarcerated peoples found working beyond prison walls. Incarcerated men could be found working as common laborers and smithies in Frankfort, placing them in direct competition with local civilian workers. The lessee also profited from leasing convict labor to nearby farms, mines, and railroads. Between 1862 and 1866, incarcerated peoples were regularly leased out to work on private farms.1

The penal agribusiness pursued by Texas was similar to that of Kentucky’s carceral labor system a hundred years earlier. KSP’s most profitable industry, for both state and private investors, was hemp production. The state’s climate was not conducive for crops such as rice, cotton, or sugar, but Kentucky was the nation’s largest hemp producer and the raw material was used to create rope and loose cloth. This type of penal agribusiness persisted in Kentucky until the 1880s, after the state transitioned to the warden system of management. This transition moved all prison industries inside the wall, banning the use of prison labor beyond the gates. The Kentucky model required the cooperation of private contractors and the use of incarcerated men with good behavior—trusties—to ensure prison manufacturing ran smoothly. Trusties were a central feature at the Kentucky prison. They were responsible for supervising prison labor assisting guards with security and clerical work such as bookkeeping and punishment court record keeping. The public often praised the efforts of prison trusties, yet also protested against their negative behavior when displayed in city streets. Kentucky trusties in the nineteenth century also had the freedom to leave the prison walls. In 1897, the state legislature received numerous complaints of trustees leaving the prison at night—displaying public intoxication, visiting brothels, and engaging in orgies in city alleyways.2

Chase argues the trusty system was the result of prison reform—reform gone awry, no doubt—but resulted in an unexpected emergence of an internal power structure. He eloquently describes the internal sex trade and the power dynamics trusties held over other incarcerated people and his work also raises the following query: what power did those engaged in the sex trade wield? While rampant sexual abuse is certainly present in carceral spaces, there are instances of incarcerated people engaging in consensual relations for their own pleasure. In the case of late-nineteenth century Kentucky, the state prison housed men and women captives. The trusties certainly had access to the women’s ward and made their advances and assaults as did the guards; however the archive reveals that the women also chose to engage in sexual relationships with incarcerated men by using a makeshift ladder to jump a fence that separated the women and men’s cellblocks. Chase’s work and others such as Estelle Freedman also acknowledge the presence of same-sex relationships, yet the archive is silent on women’s same-sex relationships in the Kentucky prison. But that doesn’t mean they did not exist. This consensual sexual activity muddies the power dynamic within the institution. But we can certainly turn to the work of Kali Gross, LaShawn Harris, and Cheryl D. Hicks to further interrogate Black women’s intimacy in the nineteenth century.

Although similar penal systems existed in the nineteenth-century Upper South, Chase’s work is groundbreaking as it places the voices of those incarcerated at the forefront of the Ruiz v. Estelle case. In Ruiz, the court ruled that the Texas penal system was a direct violation of the Eighth Amendment rights of incarcerated people. The decision specifically identified overcrowding, excessive punishments, and inadequate healthcare as key violations, but failures in security—particularly third-party governance via building tenders—were among the chief findings of the decision. These brave men that are part of Chase’s study offered testimonies, oral histories, and depositions against prison administration to document the sexual violence and hierarchical power structure that led to the reform of the state’s penal system.

Robert T. Chase beautifully illuminates the voices from the behind the wall and their pursuit for basic human rights. Chase masterfully weaves oral histories with state archives to uncover the experiences of incarcerated men and women, documents the development and impact of the prisoners’ rights movement and the internal power structure in the mid-twentieth century. Chase’s work is a necessary addition to the literature and demonstrates that in the twenty-first century there’s still much more to be done on behalf of those who remain behind the wall.

  1. Edward Ayers, Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th-Century American South, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 61. Ayers argues Kentucky began the lessee system in 1828, whereas William Sneed’s report as prison physician documents the practice began in 1825 with Joel Scott appointed “keeper.” For more on the history of the Kentucky Penitentiary, see William C Sneed. A Report on the History and Mode of Management of the Kentucky Penitentiary from Its Origin, in 1798, to March 1, 1860, (Frankfort, KY: J.B. Major, State Printer, 1860).
  2. “Trusties,” Louisville Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY, June 24, 1896, pg. 7.
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Charlene J. Fletcher

Charlene J. Fletcher is the Emerging Voices Postdoctoral Research Associate in Slavery and Justice at Brown University. Charlene’s research and forthcoming book explores the experiences of confined African-American women in Kentucky from Reconstruction to the Progressive Era, specifically illuminating the lives of confined Black women by examining places other than carceral locales as arenas of confinement, including mental health institutions and domestic spaces. Follow her on Twitter @ochosidaughter.