By Bri Barnes
“Profit Prisons” is a phrase used to describe the booming industry of Privatized Prisons. The history of this industry is vast and confusing due to the lack of documentation and differing opinions and methods across state lines. However, what if the prison system as we know it today was started as an experiment by a Baton Rouge plantation owner? It potentially changes the argument that some say that prisons were meant to be reformative institutions instead of what they have become.
McHatton & Company is not a name many Baton Rouge natives are accustomed to; as well as many scholars themselves have not had the pleasure of knowing the name. However, this company’s history is embedded deeply into Baton Rouges’ history with the start of the American prison system as we know it. James A. McHatton and his contributions started a new system of slavery: one that has progressed to become a multi-million-dollar industry that the American government has exploited. And it all started in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with the Convict Leasing system.
It all begin in 1832, when the Louisiana state legislature decided to pass an act to create the first Louisiana State Penitentiary. This one was not in Angola but, Baton Rouge at the intersection of 6th and Laurel.
“In August of that year the state purchased approximately 8 acres from Raphael Legendre and John Buhler in the Devall Town area of Baton Rouge for $800. The penitentiary was originally designed to house 100 convicts individually quartered in cells measuring 6 by 3.5 feet at an estimated cost of $50,0000.” (Hawn, Wutzburg). The original design proved to be unreliable because later that year a new act was passed stating that the cells had to be “increased to 7 by 3.5 feet and living quarters added for the prison keeper and his family.” (Hawn, Wutzburg). A fire in 1841 caused damages ranging $10,000 in the north wing of the prison left the state in a financial disparity. They could no longer go on to pay and house the inmates they were receiving. While originally only expecting the prison to hold one hundred inmates at a time, soon the numbers increased. This led to the state looking for different avenues to house and feed these inmates, creating the opportunity for the McHatton Brothers to create a new system that was “more brutal than slavery. The annual convict death rates ranged from 16 to 25 percent” (Bauer).
James McHatton & the McHatton Companies
The McHatton brothers – James and Charles – created a significant impact on the Louisiana labor systems in the 1840’s to late 1860’s, both through traditional enslaved labor and the new form of enslaved labor in the prison system. While Charles Grandison McHatton (1811-1895) ran the McHatton sugar plantation, located on what is now Louisiana State University, James Alexander McHatton oversaw the McHatton’s business ventures. There were multiple partnerships James McHatton formed with other plantation holders, yet the most significant were the McHatton & Pratt, McHatton & Pike, and the McHatton, Prat & Ward companies. During all three partnerships, the convict lease contracts were renegotiated and handled by one of these companies between the years of 1844 and 1865.
James McHatton was born in 1813 in Kentucky, USA, and was the younger brother of Charles; they were born and raised in Kentucky but had plantation land in Louisiana. He married Eliza Moore Chinn in 1852, died March 3, 1872 and is buried in the Lexington Cemetery in Lexington Fayette County, Kentucky. At some undisclosed time, the brothers came to Louisiana and started running the family business. James took control of his McHatton name and influence and formed a partnership with William Pratt sometime before 1844. In October of 1844, James McHatton formed a deal with the Louisiana State Legislature that changed the intended purpose of the prison system from reform and rehabilitation to forced labor by way of the convict-lease system. Each lease was a five-year contract that stated, “McHatton and Pratt advanced $15,000 to the state as surety for the state’s purchase and installation of textile machinery in the prison, so that prisoners could manufacture rope, pack cloth, and cotton and woolen fabric. They also paid $2,200 annually for the services of a clerk, chaplain, and prison doctor” (Mancini). McHatton and Pratt created the first lucrative contract to line benefactor pockets with money and set the precedent that forced convict labor equaled money.
James McHatton arranged multiple contracts with the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the first being the five-year convict leasing contact in 1844 and ended in 1849 with William Pratt. The next deal was with James McHatton, Pratt, and George W. Ward, and sometime after 1856, the lease would be picked up by McHatton, Pike & Co. With each contract created, the state started to see more and more profit for the men, especially McHatton, and would argue for a higher percentage until the state was at an equal fifty percent deal with the leaseholders. He had the convicts perform “task so dangerous that Louisiana planters did not risk their slaves and instead hired immigrant workers for it. Despite fears that white criminals were being treated as ’slaves,’ the lease continued, with a new one negotiated in 1857. This time the state received 25 percent of the profit made by the lessees. In 1859 another lease was drafted with the state receiving half of the profits” (Cardon 424). Among these dangers were the building and repairing of levees both across the state of Louisiana and on the McHatton Plantations.
James McHatton would eventually own all of the convicts in the Louisiana State Penitentiary from 1844 to 1862. The Union Army took control of Baton Rouge on August 5, 1862, causing McHatton to lose the convicts in his possession. Two years later, on April 9, the McHattons would liquidate their funds and leave Baton Rouge, leaving to convict lease contract to the next highest bidder.
In 1844, Louisiana started its long-standing tradition of privatizing prisons, just nine years after opening its doors. This led to the introduction of the convict leasing system with the McHatton, Pratt, and Ward Company. James McHatton and William Pratt received a state lease for $25,000 for a five-year stint. The prisoners were used to construct levees as a means of return on the state’s investment. This was done because the Louisiana government was having trouble financially keeping up with the cost of each prisoner: “by 1844 the penitentiary cost the state four hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year,” (Cardon 423). This solidified the states’s decision to enter into privatized contracts with private companies.
Originally the convicts under McHatton were used to manufacture goods like a factory and the goods materials were coming from his brother’s plantations. Unfortunately, this halted when shopkeepers and merchants complained to the government because of the resulting pay cuts. The McHattons’ could sell their good at a lower price since no one was paid for their labor, making it impossible for the shopkeepers and merchants to compete. In response, the government released an act stating that convict labor could not be used to create or sell a product. McHatton & Company, however, would not let this stop them; instead, they would go on to lease the convicts to build and repair the dams and levees up and down the Mississippi River, including the Arlington Plantation levees, as a means to return their investment.
The inmates under James McHatton suffered greatly and the convicts were, in many ways, more exploited than slaves during the time. “Convict leasing reduced the prisoner to a commodity that, unlike slavery, had little value to the owner—in this case the lessee,” (Cardon 422). McHatton was the first to show brutality and a disregard for human life in the American prison system’s infancy. The leases were run solely for the profit of the people in charge and at the expense of those held against their wills for petty crimes. Inmates only ever received a form of payment at the end of their sentences, where they were given a 10-dollar certificate, such as the one shown to the side. (McHatton. Pike & Co. vol 1) Multiple certificates are seen in the records dating from January 1858 to June 1858 that fifty-six prisoners were released. Though they were sentenced to time at the state penitentiary, according to the files, the ten dollars were paid by the McHattons, not the state.
Interestingly, at the time of McHatton’s control of the prisoners, the overwhelming percentage of inmates were white. This was because most Black people were not being held in bondage in prisons, but as slaves. It is reasonable that the only Black inmates were either free people of color native to Louisiana or free Black people passing through Louisiana. Unfortunately, this would not be the case as the years progressed, especially after the Civil War, when Black people were exploited because of this new form of legal labor. “In Louisiana, the demographics of the prison population and the length of sentences for petty crimes make clear that African American men were the target of the judicial system. Confined to labor on dangerous levees and railroads, the convict lease suggested to many observers that African American labor needed to be compelled. The convict lease, like other forms of racial intimidation, was used to maintain the power of white planters and employers in the New South.” (Cardon 420). The system itself was corrupt, just as its successor systems are.
Thanks to McHatton’s new form of slavery, the convict leasing system was able to find avenues to continue well after the death of the McHatton brothers. “Convict leasing in Louisiana in some ways challenges and in others confirms the connection between convict labor, industrial modernization, and race control found elsewhere in the South.” (Cardon 418-419). It was formally outlawed by Governor Murphy J. Foster in Louisiana in 1901 after the Louisiana Constitution of 1898 was ratified, giving the contract three years to expire. However, this was not the case in other states, as Alabama picked up on the trend just two years after the McHatton brothers started and did not end until 1928. Convict leasing swept across the Southern states after the Civil War, becoming just as brutal as the McHatton brothers, seeing no need to worry or care for the inmates because there was always more. “In the decades following the Civil War, convict leasing emerged alongside debt peonage and sharecropping as repressive labor practices meant to preserve a class and racial hierarchy in a world of emancipation.” (Cardon 419). This is supported by the fact that more and more black individuals would be incarcerated as the years passed.
The lasting effects of the Convict leasing system James McHatton created three new forms of penial labor: Chain Gangs, Industrial Prisons, and Plantation Prisons. Chain Gangs were used toward the end of convict leasing and have yet to fully go away in America. They are groups of convicts chained together forced to do laborious tasks. Chain gangs were and are used in plantation prisons and industrial prisons across the Southern states to date. Industrial prisons are government-owned or private companies that force inmates to make various goods for little to no pay.
These prisons work on the same grounds as the McHatton leasing system did, manufacturing a good to sell to outside companies for a profit for the prison owners. These goods by, 2020 listings, include car parts, lingerie, park benches and tables, blue jeans, knic- knacks, military jackets and battle garb.
The last successor of convict leasing is plantation labor; it being the successor most identical to the slave labor on the McHatton plantations. Plantation Prisons are government- or privately-owned companies that force inmates to perform agricultural work on the land of the prison.
These jobs include cultivating the land and goods, ranging from farming, cattle, dairy/milk processing, timber, fish hatchery, vineyard, fruits (citrus), poultry/eggs production, cotton, hay production, and horse breeding. The Louisiana State Penitentiary is the biggest and most famous plantation prison. Much of its reputation come from it being a horrible place where “the prisoners spend long hours doing manual labor—such as fieldwork harvesting produce—that requires a lot of bending down in the hot sun. Prisoners complain of a lack of water to keep them hydrated and cool … Jason Hacker [prisoner] alleged that despite cataracts in his eyes that made him legally blind, he was still forced to work in the fields.” (Covert).
McHatton’s New Form of Slavery and the Wealth Attributed
A question that might arise while reading is “How is any of this legal?” That can be answered by quoting the United States Constitution, according to the 13th Amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (United States Constitution).
The amendment abolished slavery, but in name, left a loophole for prisoners to be the new legal slavery. Because of the growing economy started by James McHatton, others soon started to learn about the lucrative business that this new form of slavery was. “Southern prisoners were kept on private plantations and on company-run labor camps where they laid railroad tracks, built levees, and mined coal. Former slaveholders-built empires that were bigger than those of most slave owners before the war. Nathan Bedford Forrest, first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, controlled all convicts in Mississippi for a period.” (Prison Insider). The convict leasing system swept through the American South, forming a way to keep Black people laboring for little to no cost. The 13th Amendment did nothing to protect the people then, nor does it do anything to protect their descendants now.
Today, prisoners are still forced to work on the McHatton land, though now it is called Louisiana State University. Inmates are brought to LSU’s campus to clean it after football games. Anyone who has been in attendance at a football game at LSU can see that the campus is left a filthy mess. Instead of encouraging the students and visitors to pick up after themselves, the university lets them do as they wish and “employs” the inmates to clean it up early the following day.
It is very unsettling to see a group of predominantly Black male prisoners cleaning up land that was once slave plantations—especially knowing the history of the McHattons. The complex history that the McHattons have with LSU and the prison system creates a loop effect. The McHatton has owned enslaved Black people, then James McHatton owned prisoners with a growing population of Black individuals over time, now over a hundred years later, predominantly Black prisoners are still being leased out to work the very lands that in a way started it all.
Remnants of what James McHatton started are still happening today. “Far from a symbol of economic decline, the convict lease and the exploitation of African American inmates were horrific mechanisms in the industrial modernization of the state.” (Cardon 419). As a result of James McHatton and his new form of legalized slavery, the American South found a way to keep slavery going after the end of the Civil War and found a way to criminalize newly freed Black individuals.
Looking at the Freedmen’s Bureau Louisiana State Penitentiary Record, 1866-1963, Index to Prisoners vol 5, one can see that the number of Black inmates drastically grows after the Civil War. As the number of Black inmates grew, the more brutal the labor became. In Kentucky in 1883, at the National Conference of Charities in Louisville, a member of the conference stated, “Before the war we owned the negroes. If a man had a good negro, he could afford to take care of him . . . But these convicts: we don’t own ’em. One dies, get another.” (Cardon 423). This quotation showcases the brutality that came with the leasing system, which eventually became integrated into the prison systems entirely.
The McHatton, Pratt & Ward Company ran their prisons like a factory to produce clothing for enslaved people, Louisiana state buildings, and levees. An inmate wrote in his memoir that once the convict leasing system was introduced, his superiors became violent and they were “laid aside all objects of reformation and re-instated the most cruel tyranny, to eke out the dollar and cents of human misery.” (Prison Insider). Because James McHatton created the convict leasing system in a state that was in dire need of laborers, he also unknowingly created a status quota of treatment and profit to be made from such work while giving the Southern Nationalists an opportunity to proceed with their racial ideologies and maltreatment of Black individuals.
James McHatton and Private Prisons
It is no secret that the prison system today has grown immensely. It is driven by profit and not rehabilitation, as it was supposed to be in its creation. This dream soon left the minds of many Americans as time progressed, being that most of the inmates were predominantly Black and throughout American history are treated as lesser people.
After all, prisons made so much more money. Louisiana learned this early on because of James McHatton and his convict lease system and would continue after he was gone with the predominant Samuel Lawrence James, another major player in this new form of the slave system.
Seeing what these two men did, other states adopted this system after the Civil War. At the time, most of the states could not afford to pay the upkeep of the prison or prisoners, so they contracted them out just as Louisiana did. In 1844, “To both contracting parties the convict lease was a mutually attractive and advantageous arrangement. Even after paying rent to the states, lessees could retain considerable profits from working the convicts on a variety of projects.” (Carleton 4), Following in Louisiana’s footsteps, several states, such as Florida and Texas, used convict labor to build levees and turpentine manufacture. “In Texas,  a former slaveholder and prison superintendent began an “experiment.” The state bought two plantations of its own to work inmates that were not fit enough to “hire out for first-class labor.” As a business venture, it was a success. In just over a decade, the state was making around $1.25 million in today’s dollars from its plantations, exceeding its income from the convict lease system. By 1928, the state of Texas would be running 12 prison plantations, (Bauer). Here is another state finally realizing the money that the leasing systems created, though, at the time of this realization, convict lease would be outlawed. Setting the course for the subsequent phases being privatized prisons, with the governments realizing they could capitalize on these people’s lives for their own profit instead of allowing others to benefit. Evidence of this can be seen in Louisiana by how the state contracts convicts to clean the Capitol Building in Baton Rouge, the Governor’s House, and the former plantation of James McHatton, LSU’s campus.
James McHatton started the leasing contracts. He became the first benefactor of prison labor in the American states. His contribution to the world was the creation of a system of despair, forced labor, and what would grow into even more systematic racism. Today, “prisoners in Louisiana are paid anywhere between 4 cents to $1 per hour for jobs that support prison facilities, while work on products and services that are sold to outside government agencies and private businesses pays up to 40 cents an hour.” (Covert). They do not get to reap the benefits that the people who own the prisons do; they work for pennies a day and are told to “be happy” because they are getting paid.
James McHatton modeled his new system after slavery, generating wealth for his already wealthy family, all because they could. He created the system, but others perfected it to where they could make millions from it just as he did.
In the end, James McHatton probably had no idea of the magnitude what he was forming, but he did form it. We are taught to learn history to identify ways of fixing the future, yet this was a piece of Baton Rouge history that has been either forgotten or purposefully ignored. Louisiana as a state has its faults, but at the same time, there is always pride in the history that is created, both good and bad. This should hold true to the Baton Rouge community, and many have spoken out against the prison work on the LSU campus and learning history such as this can provide a better argument. Louisiana history should not stop at New Orleans; Baton Rouge holds significant value to American history. Thanks to a plantation owner in Baton Rouge by the name James McHatton, the prison system became a lucrative, privatized business run for profit at the expense of those it incarcerates.
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