From plantation to prison: how oppression led to high rates of disease, death for Black North Carolinians - North Carolina Health News
By Andrea Kelley, Arabella Saunders, Marin Wolf
In North Carolina, the relationship between slavery and incarceration is clear and direct. Even with the end of slavery in the late-1800s, many Southern states retained economies based on labor-intensive agricultural products, but without the free labor that had supported those economies. As in many states, North Carolina turned to incarcerated populations to fill that gap.
Centuries of this oppression have contributed to some of the chronic health problems within the African American community.
Increased prevalence of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, premature death and other poor health outcomes can be caused by a lack of good nutrition, hygiene and medical care while incarcerated. Additionally, when a parent is imprisoned, their child suffers disadvantages and trauma which can lead to worse health outcomes for them later in life.
North Carolina’s history of exploiting Black people — whether through slavery or imprisonment — has played a key role in the community’s poor health outcomes.
Until 1868, North Carolina had no prisons. Any enslaved people who committed a crime were punished by their owners, and the system of county jails was effective enough for the management of people who were not enslaved, said Dr. Harry Watson, a UNC-Chapel Hill history professor who specializes in the history of the antebellum South.
But by the time lawmakers wrote the North Carolina Constitution of 1868, the existing system had become unwieldy. Along with abolishing slavery and expanding voting rights, the post-Civil War constitution also mandated the creation of a state prison.
On Jan. 6, 1870, state officials opened Central Prison in Raleigh with a temporary building, accepting its first inmates – one male, two females, all convicted of robbery. Until the permanent prison was finished, all prisoners who weren’t needed for prison construction were sent to work for railroad companies or other public corporations to prevent overcrowding, said historian Homer Carson III in a Journal of Appalachian Studies article.
That same year, the state began renting out prisoners to the Western North Carolina Railroad, which eventually stretched from Morganton to Murphy. Between 1875 and 1892 an average of 47 percent of prison labor went toward building the railroad, according to Carson.
Not enslaved, still not free
During this same period, the state population was just over one-third Black, while the prison population was 80 to 90 percent Black.
“In order to put people in prison and thus to work, new laws were passed with new penalties that could force Black laborers to work for white employers, either as prisoners of the state or as bonded laborers,” Seth Kotch, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor whose research examines modern American history and the criminal justice system, told NC Health News in an email.
During this era, prison punishments were similar to those used in slavery. The types of discipline ranged from “beatings, whippings, being put in stress positions for long periods of time, and having their rations withheld,” Kotch said.
The poor living conditions and violence extended beyond the prison walls. Prisoners on worksites lived in “cells” that ranged from railroad cars with bunks to cages on wagons.
“Work crews slept in cages, basically, without adequate protection from the weather,” Kotch said. “Some inmates lost feet to frostbite.”
With the permanent prison completed in 1884 and the railroad work winding down, state officials looked for other ways to continue using prison labor. In 1892, the prison began leasing inmates to work 7,500 acres of farmland in Halifax County. The farm, known as Caledonia, previously operated as a plantation with over 250 enslaved people. In 1899, North Carolina purchased Caledonia, making it the largest prison farm in the state.
In 1901, the national Good Roads Campaign helped expand the prison labor market, and North Carolina leaders sent prisoners to help build roads across the state, according to the N.C. Department of Public Safety’s website. Several road camps were built to house the workers on-site. As the prison system expanded, it also acquired multiple farms, and soon prisoners were taking care of crops on over 8,000 acres.
It wasn’t until 1910, however, that prisoners began receiving compensation for their work – 15 cents a day, paid upon their release. In comparison, other farm laborers were earning a little over 75 cents a day, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
By the 1930s, the prison and road camps had become so rundown and the demand for prison labor so high that in 1933, lawmakers in the North Carolina General Assembly merged the State Prison Department and the State Highway Commission through Senate Bill 96, Chapter 172.
The highway fund paid for prison maintenance and improvements to road camps, and state leaders added a facility to Central Prison where prisoners manufactured concrete pipes for the roadways. This practice continued until 1957 when legislative leaders once again separated the prison department and highway commission and started to consolidate prisons.
Then-Gov. Luther Hodges called for the separation because he thought “an independent prison system will do a better job in training and rehabilitating its prisoners,” according to a 1957 article in the Charlotte Observer.
Prison labor today
While large-scale road building ended more than 60 years ago, prisoners still labor across North Carolina for pennies an hour.
Caledonia Correctional Institution continues to operate as a prison farm, with prisoners cultivating 5,500 acres of land, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. The farm produces eggs, corn, wheat, soybeans, and other fruits and vegetables. Prisoners also operate a cannery that supplies North Carolina prison kitchens with food. The cannery has the capability to can up to 500,000 gallons of food every year.
Prisoners at the farm are producing some of the same crops that were grown on that land centuries earlier by enslaved people. The Johnston family, which owned the plantation that the Caledonia Correctional Institution was built on, grew corn, wheat, cotton and beans.
In the late 1990s, the state built two other prison labor farms: Dan River Prison Work Farm and Tyrrell Prison Work Farm. The facilities were constructed by inmate crews, and now all three farms raise crops and vegetables to provide food for other inmates within the N.C. Department of Corrections.
The prison sells some of the produce, such as corn, N.C. Department of Public Safety Communications Officer John Bull said.
At the prison farm today, prisoners are paid an hourly wage according to a skill-based scale. If a prisoner is at the top of the scale and working a full eight-hour day, they can make a maximum of $2.88 per day, or 36 cents per hour.
“These prison jobs help prepare offenders for their eventual release,” Bull said in an email. “It teaches the job skills and work ethics. It makes them more marketable.”
In addition to farm labor, some of those job skills include maintaining the roads that other prisoners built so long ago. According to the N.C. Department of Corrections, today over 2,000 prisoners patch potholes, clear right-of-ways, and pick up litter on the state’s roads. Others make road signs and highway paint. Some of this labor is supervised by correctional officers, and some is carried out under the supervision of the N.C. Department of Transportation.
Correction Enterprises, the formal name for North Carolina’s prison labor program, also puts prisoners to work doing laundry, manufacturing license plates and eyeglasses, and reupholstering furniture. According to its website, Correction Enterprises employs approximately 2,250 inmates across the state.
As of 2017, 22 percent of North Carolina’s population is Black, but 52 percent of its incarcerated population is Black, according to a report by the N.C. Institute of Medicine.
“Communities with high rates of incarceration are affected by damage to social networks and family ties, increased poverty and crime, and reduced life expectancy,” the report reads. “High rates of incarceration weaken communities and contribute to adverse health outcomes.”
The report also notes how the incarceration of a family member, in particular a parent, contributes to adverse childhood experiences, which put children at risk for ill health as adults.
Although over 150 years have passed since North Carolina’s first prison opened its doors, systems of prison labor have largely remained the same.
The Marshall Project, a non-profit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system, recently questioned whether states will change the many names of prisons that are still rooted in slavery. Caledonia Correctional Institute, which takes its name from the original plantation, is on that list.
The article states that “new names could be a powerful signal of new priorities” in the push for the prison system to leave its connection to slavery in the past.
And yet, it may not be enough, as Keri Blakinger, the Marshall Project member who wrote the article about the name changes, pointed out.
“To many experts, the idea of changing prison names feels a bit like putting lipstick on a pig,” she wrote. “No matter what you call it, a prison is still a prison. It still holds people who are not free.”
This story was produced as part of a collaborative project with the Fall 2020 class of community journalism students at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC Chapel Hill.