Originally Posted by Peregrinus
This isn't totally off-the-wall. There is a view that the US prison labour system was developed to fill the economic gap left by the abolition of slavery, and that this legacy still heavily marks it today.
During the colonial period, frontier settler societies had a perennial labour problem. The settler society is small enough, and how can you persuade one of its members to stay and work for you for a miserable wage when he is free to leave your service, travel not very far, shoot a few indigenes, occupy their land and become a property-owner?
Slavery is one answer to this problem. Convict labour is another. (This is why Australian settlers never got around to enslaving the Aborigines, people.)
So, yeah. When slavery was abolished in the US south, prison chain gangs took up part of the slack. They didn't just do public works, like building roads; they got hired out to private businesses as cheap unskilled labour. (The same happened with Australian convicts.) And pretty soon you have a sector of the economy that is more or less dependent on this labour model.
There's a touch a PC-hyperbole about this topic. Its not like convict labour replaced slavery. Instead it was Sharecropping - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharecropping
Lots of sharecroppers went North for a better life in the "great migrations".
But as you maybe saying, penal labour was more to fill "gaps". Not pleasant - but not same same as slavery not being abolished.
The nub of the problem is the revived racist southern Democrat party retaking political power in the South after the Reconstruction.
On the OPs point (which people use to say the USA began as a slave state) Maybe nitpicking, but as far as I know, there were no "slaves" or slave laws in Jamestown. There were indentured servants (white & black). Not a nice life, but they got their freedom when their terms was up.
In a horribly bizarre precedent, one black servant in Virginia earned his freedom, became wealthy, and won a court case to enslave one of his black servants.
Also, vagrancy laws could affect whites too. Like Martin Tabert who couldnt produce a train ticket in 1921 in Florida, so was sentenced to forced labour and died soon after, from heat whipping etc. But perhaps his white status generated more outrage than for blacks.
Prisons existed before the civil war also. America’s huge modern prison population only started expanding massively in the 1970s/80s