Down on the Farm

While the chain gang is mostly a creature of the past in the United States, prison farms are very much with us even today. A prison farm is a correctional facility where able-bodied inmates are required to perform manual labor in open-air tasks like farming, animal husbandry, logging, quarrying, and mining. Prisons are able to use convicts for this labor because the 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude generally, specifically perpetuates penal servitude.

Twelve states and one Canadian province currently operate prison farms. The largest prison farm is Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Louisiana (18,000 acres).

It is easy to locate records of prison farm residents in the 1940 U.S. Census using Ancestry Library Edition (Ancestry LE). Just scroll to the bottom of Ancestry LE’s landing page and select:

U.S. Census Records—1940

Next do this search:

SEARCH—KEYWORD: prison farm (Exact) 13,962 hits

You can filter search results by including a place:

SEARCH—KEYWORD: prison farm (Exact) 1,929 hits

You could also filter results by using RELATION TO HEAD OF HOUSEHOLD. Unfortunately, terms used here vary state by state:

(prisoner number)

You may use Ancestry LE at Central Library or any of our branches.

Here’s a complete list of SLPL reference databases.

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