Did Maryland prisons hire out convict labor? | HistoryNet MENU

Did Maryland prisons hire out convict labor?

1/31/2013 • Ask Mr. History

Mr. History,

I’m looking for information about the use of prisoners as “hired out” laborers to work in manual labor jobs outside of prisons in Maryland during the period from 1850 to 1960. Any information you may have regarding convict labor in Maryland will be appreciated.

D. Long

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Dear Ms. Long,

Actually, Maryland has made an official policy of putting convicts to work since the formation of its Court on Oyer and Terminer and Gaol Delivery in 1793, when robbers, highwaymen and other felons were sentenced to up to seven years of hard labor building or repairing roads. In 1809 felons got a choice of hard labor or solitude, and from 1837 even those in solitary were expected to spend anywhere from 1/20 to 1/2 of their time working in their cell, weaving cotton or woolen goods—a means of putting more elderly and infirm inmates to use without the strains of physical labor. The state adopted a contract system from 1880 to 1912 and at this time Maryland still puts convicts approaching release to work, mainly cleaning up the environment, as a means of phasing them into “the world.”

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Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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