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"Hell Exploded": Prisoner Music and Memoir and the Fall of Convict Leasing in Texas

NCJ Number
The Prison Journal Volume: 89 Issue: 1 Dated: March 2009 Pages: 54S-69S
Robert Perkinson
Date Published
March 2009
16 pages
Focusing on Texas, this article examines the role of prisoner self-expression in destabilizing the practice of leasing convicts for harsh labor to contractors who grew rich by minimizing expenses and maximizing convict labor output.
Given the exploitation and brutality of the convict leasing system, many convicts fought back by stealing, quota cheating, faking illness, singing rudely, engaging in sabotage, mutilating themselves, and participating in riots and work strikes. Others assailed their exploitation in print. An amazing collection of Texas prisoner writings exist, ranging from clemency appeals to eloquent autobiographies. These writings testify to the determination of some convicts to channel their rage and hopelessness, while seeking redress and release from their abuse under the Texas prisoner leasing system. Prison field music, by contrast, never directly confronted authority, but helped harmonize prisoner perspectives in ways that encouraged more overt subversion of the convict leasing system. African-American convicts, in particular, drew on slavery’s cultural memory to compose thousands of field “hollers” and work songs that would eventually coalesce into an original body of music. Prayers for divine deliverance were a common feature of prisoner songs. Prison work songs persisted through the lease era and beyond, but as the legitimacy of privatized labor punishment began to crumble in the late 19th century, more overtly subversive forms of prisoner self-expression achieved greater political influence. A new form of prisoner writing flourished as leasing faltered, i.e., professionally published memoirs. Among the most compelling memoirs was Charles Campbell’s “Hell Exploded: an Exposition of Barbarous Cruelty and Prison Horrors,” published in 1900 shortly after the author’s release from a prison ironworks. The current article advises that we might do well to heed Charles Campbell’s suggestion to “slam our prisons to hell” and begin seriously looking for alternatives. 91 references


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