The Troubling History Of America’s Private Prisons

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Image: Detroit Publishing Co.

The thinking behind private prisons in the mid-1800s could scarcely have been more starkly described than in an article in the Telegraph and Texas Register. “If a profit of several thousand dollars can be made on the labor of twenty slaves, why may not a similar profit be made on the labor of twenty convicts?” the newspaper’s correspondent asked in all seriousness.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons

And when you read descriptions of 19th-century private prisons, which came to the fore after the end of the Civil War, the comparison with slavery is hard to avoid. In fact, early-adopter Louisiana got into the private prison business before the conflict, turning its state prison into a for-profit enterprise in 1844.

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Image: Henry P. Moore

A company called McHatton, Pratt, and Ward owned the Louisiana jail and their motivation was purely commercial. The prisoners even helped slave owners in the state because they made inexpensive clothes especially for slaves. Obviously the masters aimed to economize where they could.

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