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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Incarceration and state terror: racial capitalism in the American South, 1865-1945 Donegan, Connor McElwee


This thesis presents a history of the State of Florida's convict leasing program (1877-1920) and situates critical developments in the prison system within concurrent transformations of racial capitalism in the American South. The social struggles that followed the Civil War forged the legal, political, economic, and ideological practices and strategies for white supremacy and capitalist production that remained predominant in the region until roughly World War II. Drawing extensively from archival sources including the reports of state prison supervisors and physicians, correspondence between prison officials and lessees of convicts, and official biennial reports on the state prison system, this research proposes a three-fold interpretation of the postbellum South's penal system. The prison system was, first of all, among the primary disciplinary mechanisms for planters and industrial capitalists who sought to maintain a pliable, submissive, and impoverished workforce through debt peonage arrangements and corporal punishment. Second, the prison system was a revenue-driven human trafficking network that redistributed labour to various capitalists throughout each state. I document how race, gender, ability, and the demands of industry were the primary determinants in the apprehension of prisoners and their distribution throughout the state of Florida. Lastly, this work argues that the prison system must be understood as a form of institutionalized state terrorism organized to permanently suppress the Black Freedom Struggle. The labour camps were juridically produced spaces of unlimited violence within which prisoners were subjected to debilitating and life-threatening beatings, medical malpractice, and execution. As a whole, this thesis uses Marx’s method to construct a thorough critique of the claim that proletarian labour is necessarily "free wage labour" by detailing the mutually reinforcing relationship between capitalist social relations, as expressed within the process of production, and forms of personal and group domination including enslavement, debt peonage, imprisonment, and male domination.

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