From the Ashes, 1872-1900
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives

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July 28, 1884

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The house of corrections received 6,999 new inmates in 1884. Of these 5,530 were male; 1,469 female; 1,575 married; 5,424 single; 1,399 parents; and 3,216 orphans. Their breakdown by age was as follows: under 15 – 256; 15-21 – 1,694; 22-30 – 2,213; 31-40 – 1,634; 41-60 – 1,074; and 61-90 – 118. By far the most common offense was breach of the peace with the usual sentence being under thirty days. In jail prisoners were required to work to pay their keep. For their work they were allowed a daily wage of fifty cents which went towards paying their court costs and fines. Inmates both were hired out to private individuals for daywork and employed inside the prison in the manufacture of bricks and cane chairs.

In 1885 the state legislature proposed an amendment to the state constitution which outlawed contracting prisoners to outside employers. And as a result of strong support from organized labor the amendment was ratified by voters the following year. But the amendment was evaded often by local officials who accepted raw materials from manufacturers and then supplied them finished products at prices previously agreed upon.

The ethic of the day placed corrections officials in a quandary. Prisoners were expected to pay their own way and they usually could do this only by their own labor. But law-abiding laborers could be displaced from honest employment by criminals whose services could be had for greatly reduced wages.

Points to Consider

Who were the undeserving poor?

Why would honest laborers be concerned about prison laborers? How did organized labor groups view the practice of prison labor?

Why would private individuals or companies employ prisoners?

Identify some of the problems inherent in the prison labor system.

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