The Cowee Tunnel and the Workers’ New Chains

By Wayne Odom

On December 30, 1882, 19 men and boys, as young as 15, drowned in the icy waters of the Tuckasegee River near my home in Jackson County, North Carolina. Seventeen years after the “end” of slavery, these African-American men were back in chains, and those chains dragged them down to the rocky bottom of the river when their ferryboat capsized. The men were being transported across the river to continue their forced labor on the Cowee Tunnel, about three miles from where I’m writing these words. The State of North Carolina had leased the men, state convicts, to the Western North Carolina Railroad Company for the dangerous job of cutting a 700-foot-long tunnel as a shortcut at a bend in the river.

All but one of these prisoners had been born in the time of legal chattel slavery. They all died in chains, working for the profit of others. In the years after the Civil War many Southern states enacted laws known as the “black codes”. The black codes were an attempt by the former Confederate States to control the labor and movement of the recently “freed” slaves. The codes worked by criminalizing otherwise non-criminal behavior, such as violation of dusk-to-dawn curfews for Blacks, failure to have an annual labor contract, or travel without a permanent address. One result of these laws was to capture a huge pool of free labor in the wake of abolition.

Residents of the nearby town of Dillsboro have recently identified the mass grave of the 19 men on a ridge top above a now-closed town dump. Talk is underway about exhuming the bodies and returning them to their descendants.

So…remembrance of a dark time in history, but the good people of today are setting it right. Right?

Maybe not. The themes of history tend to repeat themselves. These days we don’t lease out state and federal prisoners, because modern business practices have advanced.

Now, private corporations profit from the incarceration of people directly, by being paid to lock them up. The US has 5% of the world’s population, but we have 25% of all prisoners. Estimates are that 730 out of every one hundred thousand of the population is under judicial control. There are over 85,000 people held in 107 for-profit prisons in the USA.

We have created an industry with an incentive to lobby for laws that will lock up the maximum number of people.

Think I’m over reacting to events 135 years ago? Here are the words of the nation’s largest private prison corporation, the Corrections Corporation of America. In CCA’s 2010 Annual Report, they warn the corporation’s investors against changes in the nation’s justice system that would adversely impact profits:

The demand for our facilities could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. (p.19)

I hear an echo of the “black codes”. It is now in the private profit interest of multi-billion dollar corporations to have long mandatory minimum sentences, sentences that distinguish between drugs more frequently used by minorities (rock vs powder cocaine) and increasing criminalization and incarceration of undocumented immigrants.

For the same reason you don’t want your neighbor to be able to buy an insurance policy on your house, and thus have a profit motivation to burn it down, it should bother you that there is a private corporation near you that would love to lock you up.


Wayne Odom is a retired public school teacher and administrator from Northwest Florida. He is a former president of the Escambia County Education Association (EEA/NEA) and a U.S. Air Force veteran. In retirement, he spends most of his time in the mountains of Western North Carolina.