Judgments and Contracts
In Southern courtrooms, men were ensnared into forced labor primarily through two legal methods. In many cases, defendants were often found guilty of real or fabricated crimes, and were fined for the crime and additional court fees. When the men were unable to pay, a local businessman would step forward to pay the fines. The defendant would then sign a contract agreeing to work without pay until the debt was paid off.
A second method involved a defendant who, when faced with the likelihood of a conviction and the threat of being sent to a far-off work camp, would “confess judgment,” essentially claiming responsibility before any trial occurred. A local businessman would step forward to act as “surety,” vouching for the future good behavior of the defendant, and forfeiting a bond that would pay for the crime. The judge would accept the bond, without ever rendering a verdict on the crime. The defendant would then sign a contract agreeing to work without pay until the surety bond was paid off.
The contracts summarizing these agreements were often unfair. In many cases, the defendants were unable to read. Sometime, the contracts stated that the defendants agreed to be locked up and treated as a convict, to be physically punished, and that any expenses due to health care, new clothing, or re-capturing due to an escape attempt could be added to the total. In some cases, the contracts also allowed the debt and the defendant to be transferred to a new employer.