The thinking behind private prisons in the mid-1800s could scarcely have been more starkly described than in an article in the Telegraph and Texas Register. “If a profit of several thousand dollars can be made on the labor of twenty slaves, why may not a similar profit be made on the labor of twenty convicts?” the newspaper’s correspondent asked in all seriousness.

And when you read descriptions of 19th-century private prisons, which came to the fore after the end of the Civil War, the comparison with slavery is hard to avoid. In fact, early-adopter Louisiana got into the private prison business before the conflict, turning its state prison into a for-profit enterprise in 1844.

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