Locked Up: The prison labor that built business empires

Photograph shows two white men overseeing African American men hammering boulders as others walk with wheelbarrows in a shallow pit phosphate mine, Dunnellon, Florida, 1890. (Library of Congress via AP)

More than 150 years ago, a prison complex known as the Lone Rock stockade operated at one of the biggest coal mines in Tennessee.

It was powered largely by African American men who had been arrested for minor offenses — like stealing a hog — if they committed any crime at all. Women and children, some as young as 12, were sent there as well.

The work, dangerous and sometimes deadly, was their punishment.

The state was leasing these prisoners out to private companies for a fee, in a practice known all across the South as convict leasing. In states like Texas, Florida, Georgia and Alabama , prisoners were also used to help build railroads, cut timber, make bricks, pick cotton and grow sugar on plantations.

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In a joint investigation, reporters from the Associated Press and Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting spent months unearthing this history.