For nearly a century after the Civil War, the State of Georgia treated its convicted felons harshly, first leasing them to private companies and later working them on county roads. Working the convicts relentlessly under sometimes brutal conditions, the authorities abandoned reformation and exploited cheap labor. Brooklyn-born Burns returned from World War I a misfit veteran. Reduced to desperation and robbery, he was arrested in 1922 and sentenced to six to ten years on the Georgia chain gang. After suffering torturous treatment and escaping, Burns wrote his story in 1931.