Bad Men, Good Roads, Jim Crow, and the Economics of Southern Chain Gangs


  • Howard Bodenhorn Clemson University, John E. Walker Department of Economics, and NBER, USA


crime, punishment, chain gangs, public finance, highway finance.


Penology in the Jim Crow South centered on the chain gang. Gangs ostensibly served three purposes: their severity served as a deterrent; their putting convicts to work on roads and other public improvements reduced the taxpayers’ costs of infrastructure; and their discriminatory implementation reinforced the social order defined by Jim Crow. Drawing on insights from the economics of crime literature, this paper analyzes whether chain gangs reduced road maintenance costs. Using a fixed-effects design, the analysis finds that the costs of using gangs in road maintenance were marginally lower on average than using wage labor. The results are consistent with county officials choosing between convict and free labor in manner consistent with minimizing taxpayers’ costs.