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Talitha L LeFlouria, Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South

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Punishment & Society
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DOI: 10.1177/1462474515598752
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Book review
Talitha L LeFlouria, Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South,
University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC, 2015; 257 pp. (including index):
9781469622477, $39.95 (cloth)
Talitha LeFlouria’s Chained in Silence is a meticulously researched, and immensely
illustrative record of the understudied labor efforts made by thousands of black
female convicts in the post-Civil War South. Via primary sources, this text specif-
ically chronicles how this labor force contributed not only to the New South’s
efforts to usher in industrial modernity, but also shaped early penal reform that
accommodated both an expanding economic base as well as the need to subordin-
ate and defeminize freed black women. In five detailed chapters LeFlouria takes on
race, gender, biological notions of criminality, rehabilitation rhetoric, law, local
economics, and the prison industrial complex—all while breathing life into long
ago buried testimony and highlighting how state-sanctioned punishment and pri-
vate commercial interests converge in the spirit of preserving racial hierarchy and
nourishing budding economic pursuits.
The inquiry begins with an illustration of how racist, paternalistic beliefs around
black women’s incurably criminal selves, drove the need to round up criminal
women who could not support themselves in the ‘‘civil’’ world. Indeed there
were freed black women who—while working as cooks, maids, and laun-
dresses—took advantage of their close proximity to goods that they could steal
from their white employers. Records show that larceny was an unexceptional
offense, committed perhaps out of necessity or as an indignant response to employ-
ers’ unfair compensation offers and unwelcomed sexual advances. Some city-
dwelling black women working in Atlanta’s gambling, bootlegging, and brothel
circuits, were rounded up for vice offenses that their white counterparts continued
to take part in, largely undisturbed. The white Georgian penal response sought to
curtail black women’s crime but also to symbolically restrict black women’s free-
dom. Legal officials alleged that these women were plagued by idleness and needed
the discipline of structured work. Moreover, an entire terrain needed rebuilding
and with little left in the state coffers to fund the effort, the option of private
convict leasing could not have been more attractive.
LeFlouria demonstrates how black women’s prison labor was absolutely critical
to the launch of post-bellum modernity and convict leasing, prison camps, and
state prison farms served several functions. Subsidized black labor provided a
practical solution to the South’s fiscal crisis, the state was relieved of the burden
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of building and maintaining prisons facilities, and black women’s freedoms were
effectively minimized, allowing white supremacy to proceed uncontested. The
nationwide push toward industrial agriculture, automobile innovation, and road
improvement had a direct effect on how Georgia reframed its carceral structure at
the start of the 20th century. By 1915, Georgia had more surfaced rural roads than
any other southern state and it was misdemeanant black women sentenced to
decentralized chain gang assignments, who built many of those roads and bridges.
Black women felons served longer sentences, working on Georgia’s railroads, in the
coalmines, and as brick packers. In the all-women’s prison camps, work squads
toiled from sunrise to sunset hauling, stitching, cutting, and processing broomcorn,
cotton, and lumber—effectively spearheading the southern industrial textile indus-
try. These women were completely defeminized, dressed in tattered striped prison
garb, compelled to labor as much if not more than their ‘‘weak and feeble’’ male
counterparts, and were often sterilized via gynecological neglect and devastation.
Some did actively resist their imprisonment by escaping, stealing, feigning illness,
or burning uniforms or structures in the effort to undermine productivity.
However, because the prison sites were rife with sexualized violence, illness, infec-
tion and fatality, ritual abuses were largely inescapable.
LeFlouria identifies several reformists who made it their charge to ameliorate
the lived lives of black female convicts and as such, the roles of Black women in the
new South ‘‘had to be revised to meet a new set of commercial demands and to
abate public dissent’’ (p. 102). The redirection of black female convicts’ labor
efforts toward developing Georgia’s agro-industrial penal complex was a solution
that accommodated all ‘‘interested parties’’. Back in the fields, a more ‘‘natural’’
site for black women workers, labor efforts included crop diversification and the
development of more advanced farming implements. Some women acquired skilled
trade expertise, though their mastery did not net them any tangible advantages in
the labor market upon release. While in the custody of private and state correc-
tional entities, workers routinely suffered major injuries and contracted infectious
diseases. As bedbound workers were unproductive and expensive to care for, some
were granted clemency and had their sentences commuted, but only after their
invalid status was unequivocally confirmed. LeFlouria convincingly argues, too,
that clemency rulings had little to do with mercy and everything to do with the
economic unviability of these now broken women.
This remarkable work details how black women’s overlooked lived experiences
sparked both early penal reform as well as the advancement of new forms of labor.
By lifting the veil that obscures the diversity and significance of black women’s
labor contributions, readers are armed with a more informed imagination of just
who was responsible for (re)building the postbellum South’s economic infrastruc-
ture. LeFlouria’s research also takes on the work of introducing the traumatized
voices of these women whose bodies and personhood were devastated by convict
labor, and begs us to evaluate how in a contracted economy, the mechanisms of
slavery and black labor exploitation have evolved in increasingly insidious ways. It
appears that for black women imprisoned at the turn of the 20th century, convict
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labor may have been worse than slavery. The new confinement context for these
women was branded with all of the same violence and exploitation, but amplified by
the additional terror of the decline in their procreative worth and the efforts levied
against their maternity. Despite their massive contributions, these women were per-
manently relegated to a new devalued and disposable underclass. What was certain,
too, was the state’s unwillingness to invest in the correction and care of this new
criminal class. So the question remains today: If the state imposes laws that regulate
poor black women’s movements but relinquishes its role in the treacherous handling
wreaked upon black women’s bodies while in correctional custody, can we still hold
it accountable? What precisely is the state doing for/to the people who it cannot
afford to punish but still identifies as useful for labor and profit production?
In addition to the historical perspective offered by LeFlouria’s expertise, the
book’s contemporary implications are remarkably fertile and point to racialized,
gendered rhetoric that animates contemporary profit-driven penal regimes. The
relevance of this book’s lessons is particularly pronounced during the current his-
torical moment where poor, nonviolent, women of color constitute the fastest-
growing convicted population in the United States. Simultaneously, we must con-
front the swelling influence of inconspicuous corrections privatization, where little
oversight is enforced and our most vulnerable citizens will see everything extracted
from them before any measure of (re)habilitation is introduced. These practices
affect longstanding impacts on state budgets, convicted communities, and public
conscience. Not unlike the ‘‘vagrant’’ women who were rounded up from the streets
of Atlanta in the late 19th century, the presumption of guilt remains for multi-
marginalized women of color who are disproportionately arrested, charged, and
convicted of criminal offenses. LeFlouria implores readers to disrupt silences that
mask legacies of gendered, racial bias that steers punishment outcomes, and she
invites future studies to examine the role of race and gender in the construction of
formal control and state-sponsored economic innovation. For every new way there
is to blast through the ground and plant the seeds of profit, it seems that we find the
same fingerprints on the tools and the triggers. We must keep digging.
Erin M Kerrison
University of Pennsylvania, USA
Book review 3
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