The mid-19th century brought profound demographic changes to the United States. The defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War led to the emancipation of millions of African-American slaves in the South. Waves of immigrants arrived at the shores of American industrial cities looking for work. Others migrated West in search of a new life.
As was the case with the newly independent United States, post-Civil War America experienced a rise in crime rates, which led to prison overcrowding. As in the 18th-century, overcrowding lead to decay and corruption. In order to exert some form of control of their convicts, many Northern prisons reverted back to corporal punishment for prisoner infractions, a practice that would continue both officially and unofficially until well into the 20th century.
In the South, newly freed slaves often found themselves back in chains over the most minor offenses. Black prisoners quickly became a disproportionate number of the total prison population as they were targeted by law enforcement authorities and given heavy sentences by a racially biased justice system.
The Thirteenth Amendment made slavery illegal, but arresting criminals, sentencing them to hard labor and then leasing that labor was all perfectly legal. This marked the beginning of the convict lease system, in which prisoners in the custody of the state were leased to private enterprises. Once again, involuntary labor was big business in the South, though Northern institutions weren't above taking advantage of this lucrative opportunity either.
Because of the conditions in which prisoners were kept, injuries and even death from the physical discipline, essentially torture, were commonplace. Some prison camps saw mortality rates as high as 40 percent.
An Illustrated History of the Mental Asylum