Locked Up: The Prison Labor That Built Business Empires

More than 150 years ago, a prison complex known as the Lone Rock Stockade operated at one of Tennessee’s largest coal mines.

It was fueled largely by African-American men who had been arrested for minor offenses – like stealing a pig – if they had committed any crime. Women and children, some as young as 12, were also sent there.

Work, dangerous and sometimes deadly, was their punishment.

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


In a joint investigation, Associated Press and Reveal reporters from the Center for Investigative Reporting spent months digging up this story. They focused on Tennessee coal, iron & Railroad, which operated the stockade and coal mine, and the company that later purchased it, US Steel.

The team found someone living today whose ancestor was imprisoned in the Lone Rock Stockade nearly 140 years ago. They also interviewed the descendant of a man who got rich from his role as a pioneer of Tennessee’s convict rental system.

Reporters also heard from US Steel. For the first time, he said he was ready to discuss his past with members of the affected community.

Listen to the podcast here:


Convict leasing was essentially a new form of slavery that began after the Civil War and continued for decades in the South. States — and corporations — have gotten rich by arresting mostly black men and then forcing them to work for big corporations.

The 13th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude. But it made an exception for those convicted of a crime, providing legal cover for convict rentals.

Tennessee and many other states adopted similar language in their constitutions which still exists today.


Lone Rock Storage has operated in Tracy City, Tennessee for over 25 years. Prisoners lived in cramped and unsanitary conditions. Built to hold 200 people at a time, the prison sometimes held 600.

Men also risked their lives every day above ground, occupying flaming domed coke ovens used in the iron-making process.

They were helping Tennessee, Coal, Iron and Railroad get rich. The company was an economic powerhouse, later taken over by the world’s largest corporation at the time: US Steel Corporation.


The racial makeup of prison populations changed almost overnight after the Civil War. In Tennessee, during slavery, less than 5% of prisoners were black. In 1866, after emancipation, this number rose to 52%. And by 1891, it had skyrocketed to 75%.


Black codes are laws passed by states that targeted African Americans for petty offenses such as vagrancy, jumping on a train car or not having proof of employment.

In Tennessee, people have been sentenced to five years of hard labor in a coal mine for having interracial relationships.


The United States Steel Corporation, also known as US Steel, was founded by American business giants including JP Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. It is present in the United States and Central Europe and remains one of the main steel producers.

The company used forced labor for at least five years in Alabama in the early 1900s, but never spoke openly about this dark chapter in its history. He misrepresented his use of prison labor and failed to recognize the men who died in his mines.

After being contacted by AP and Reveal reporters, the company for the first time agreed to sit down and speak with members of the affected community. US Steel also confirmed that it has a cemetery located on the site of its former coal mine: “US Steel does not condone the practices of a century ago,” it said in a statement. “Given the time that has elapsed, we unfortunately do not have complete records of this situation.”

“We would be happy to consider a commemorative plaque if members of the affected community express an interest. We would also be happy to meet them and discuss these topics.


This story was supported by the Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights at Columbia University in conjunction with the Arnold Foundation.

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