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The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 100, July 1996 - April, 1997

Book Reviews


According to MatthewJ. Mancini, the South's postbellum convict lease system
reveals a great deal about the region's economy and politics. "All the major
themes of the period of Southern history were clustered together within that in-
stitution: fears of a labor shortage, racism, the dearth of capital, hair-trigger vio-
lence, the courageous efforts of humane reformers, and, through it all, the
struggle to modernize" (p. 2). While historians have conducted state-level stud-
ies of the convict lease system, such as Donald R. Walker's Penology for Profit: A
History of the Texas Prison System, 1867-1912 (1988), Mancini seeks to provide an
overview of the system in the South building on primary and especially sec-
ondary sources.
Leasing developed as southerners' haphazard solution to the problem of sus-
taining their prison populations cheaply. Few southern states, Texas being one,
had constructed penitentiaries before 186o. In the aftermath of the Civil War,
legislatures evinced little desire to divert scarce revenues to the care of their
prison populations. Although leasing exhibited a great deal of variance across
the states, policical corruption, brutality, and exploitation characterized it wher-
ever it took root. In Texas, for instance, convicts worked on plantations, rail-
roads, and in the timber industry.
The most significant and controversial aspect of Mancini's argument in his re-
jection of the view that leasing represented "'a functional replacement for slav-
ery"' (pp. 20-21). While acknowledging a connection between the end of
slavery and the advent of the convict lease system, his breakdowns of the South's
prison population by race over time support his contention that the relationship
between the two is more complex than most scholars have acknowledged. For
Mancini, leasing's flexibility in providing a source of cheap labor to exploitative
southern industries represents its primary significance.
While reformers railed against convict leasing for decades, Mancini rejects the
notion that they were the central forces behind its demise and credits economic
forces instead. By the early twentieth century, diminished requirements for a
cheap and readily available source of labor, as well as the rising cost of convict la-
bor relative to free workers, made the system less attractive. Disgust at lessees'
mistreatment of prisoners and the desire to capture for the public the benefits
of convict labor led many states like Texas to purchase state prison farms. In all,
Mancini has provided scholars with an important study of the convict lease sys-
tem that aids our understanding of the problems associated with the creation of
a truly free labor system in the South.
Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. By Keith
H. Basso. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996. Pp. xvi-
ii+171. Pronunciation guide, preface, epilogue, notes, references cited, in-
dex. ISBN o-8263-1724-3. $14-95, paper.)
In this volume, Keith Basso continues his ethnographic and sociolinguistic study
of the Western Apache of Cibecue. It follows such publications as his Portraits of the


Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 100, July 1996 - April, 1997. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. Accessed May 3, 2016.

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