Convict Leasing: Justifications, Critiques, and the Case for Reparations

Courtney Howell


The first prisoner received by the State of Florida into the convict leasing system was an African-American man named Cy Williams. He was officially entered into prison records as "No. 1." rather than by his name. Williams did not know his own age upon arrival, but one prison official's memoir states that the boy had been convicted "when he was a mere pickaninny." Though not large enough to mount a horse, Williams nevertheless attempted to steal one and the authorities caught him while he was trying to lead it off by the halter. For his crime, a judge "duly sentenced" Williams to twenty years imprisonment. Malachi Martin, the warden of the work camp at the time, unsure at first how to put such a small prisoner to work, eventually came up with an idea. He placed a pile of two bricks at each of end of the prison yard while giving "the black baby" two more. The warden then ordered Williams to carry his two bricks to one of the piles at either end of the yard, place them on the ground, pick up the other two bricks, and carry them to the pile at the opposite end. He continued this process for the entire day, always carrying two bricks at a time. Martin instructed Williams to keep the piles of bricks neat and warned him not to break any of them. If he failed to keep his stack orderly, or if he damaged the bricks, he would be whipped. He continued this activity throughout his sentence and "grew up at the task" until given other labor assignments years later. Through the abrasion from simply picking the bricks up and setting them down, Williams managed to wear out four sets of bricks while carrying out his sentence. The state never considered commuting Williams' sentence, even after ten years of service as protocol dictated; the proper avenues for commutation were not in place at the camp because of inefficient leadership and poor organizational structures within the prison system. Eventually, however, Williams received "gain time" and only served seventeen years out of his twenty-year sentence.

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Primary Sources:

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