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Slaves of the state: American prison labour past and present

We know that corporations are drawn to prisoners because they constitute a source of cheap and reliable labour. But what makes prison labour so attractive to governments?

Inmates on a chain gang in Arizona in 2011. Eduardo Barraza/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

Prisoners in the United States produce a vast array of products bought and sold in supermarkets. They roast coffee beans, farm trout and catfish, milk cows and goats for artisanal cheeses sold at Whole Foods, and pick and process Idaho potatoes and other fruits and vegetables. Corporations both large and small have called upon prisoners to make clothes, shoes, and other department store goods, such as American flags or Prison Blues jeans.

The US prison system is characterised by staggering racial and class-based disparities. For instance, in 2008, the US Bureau of Justice reported that one in three black men would go to prison in his lifetime. Of the one in 35 adults in America currently under correctional control, most are from poor and working class backgrounds. Reflecting on the fact that most prisoners are arrested for poverty-related crimes like theft or selling drugs, while prison time perpetuates their poverty, Harvard sociologist Bruce Western has called US prisons ‘the new poverty trap.’

Prisoners’ meagre wages do little to free them from this trap. They are paid dramatically less than market rates would dictate for their labour. The state of California, which has put inmates to work as fire fighters, reportedly pays them $2 a day compared to a non-inmate fire fighter’s typical hourly wage of $34.44. Wages vary across different ‘employment’ scenarios, but the majority of employed prisoners are paid between US$0.12 to $0.40 per hour. Prisoners have often been subjected to dangerous working conditions, such as being exposed to cadmium and lead while recycling electronics.

Pointing to racial, class and income disparities, many critics have described prison labour as a form of ‘modern day slavery.’ Article after article depicts the problem as one in which corporations are exploiting prisoners as part of their “eternal quest to maximize profit.” It’s no doubt true that some prison labour is pursued as a cost-cutting strategy for firms. But framing prison labour as an interchangeable form of corporate exploitation has obscured its wider and more complex role in US capitalism—both historically and today. In some ways, the more interesting question is: what makes prison labour so attractive to governments?

Prison labours past

Prison labour is not a modern phenomenon. A vast body of research has demonstrated that there have been at least three major waves of for-profit prison labour in the history of US capitalism.

The earliest wave occurred across Northern states in the early to mid nineteenth century, where the rise of factory work and urbanisation was resulting in labour scarcities and worker rebellions. Prisoners were put to work in large-scale industrial factories to fulfil capitalists’ need for a productive and disciplined labour force. Prison factories during this period were penal-social laboratories. ‘The whip made men living machines’, while managers experimented with different divisions of labour and violent methods of discipline. As historian Rebecca McLennan has argued, these prison factories played an important role in quelling widespread resistance to the new industrial social order by habituating them into the disciplines of waged labour.

The second and overlapping wave of prison labour—the convict lease system—emerged in the Southern states in the wake of the formal abolition of plantation slavery in 1865. American states leased large blocks of prisoners to private companies, which forced prisoners to pick cotton, mine coal, and lay railroads. Far from being a mere substitute for slavery, historians like David Oshinsky have argued that this system of unfree labour was ‘worse than slavery’: it was a brutal strategy to re-appropriate the labour of former slaves and their children. With convict death rates of over 40% in some states, prison labour powerfully and publicly reinforced a racially polarised social order.

Both of these systems of prison labour were enormously profitable. According to one study, in 1865-66, ‘American prisoners made goods or performed work worth almost $29 million—a sum equivalent, as a relative share of Gross Domestic Product, to over $30 billion in 2005 dollars.’

The role of prison labour in US capitalism has never been just about corporate profits. The key architect and beneficiary of these prison labour systems have always been states. Prison labour has helped generate the power and revenue necessary to impose a social order ruled by money and markets. At the same time, the prison system upholds the market order imposed by governments, incarcerating those who resist or cannot find a livelihood within it. High numbers of prisoners have been incarcerated for property crime, theft, or other attempts to create a livelihood outside of low-paid, precarious labour markets. Viewed in this light, prison labour has historically played an essential disciplinary role, both for individual prisoners and for capitalist expansion more broadly. It also helped to uphold racialised and class-based social orders on which economic ‘growth’ was predicated in both the North and the South, until it was outlawed (until 1979) during the Great Depression.

Prison labour today

The third wave of US prison labour—our contemporary system— needs to be understood in this historical light. Today’s prison labour is not simply a ‘substitute for’ plantation slavery or an interchangeable ‘form’ of slavery. To suggest otherwise obscures the central role of governments in perpetuating and profiting from prison labour. While there are some obvious parallels between different systems of exploitation and domination, simplistic analogies blur complex entanglements between slavery, prison labour, and other systems of unfree labour.

In comparison to the two previous waves, a relatively small number of contemporary prisoners exclusively work for private businesses. A wave of legislation—beginning with the Prison Industry Enhancement Act in 1979—re-authorised profitable prison labour and mandated that prisoners work during their incarceration. Today, most of the 2,220,300 prisoners in the US work directly for the state to maintain the prisons in which they are confined. Roughly 6% of state prisoners and 16% of federal prisoners are incarcerated by and work for private companies.

Some prisoners work for Federal Prison Industries, a government-owned corporation also known as UNICOR, which reported in 2014 to employ 12,468 inmates across 78 prison factories. UNICOR recycles toxic e-waste, manufactures goods from the postal containers used by US Postal Service to ballistic military gear, and runs call centers for private firms. UNICOR’s total sales surpassed US$389 million in 2014.

Still more inmates work for booming, state-level prison industries. Prisoners in states like California and Colorado work at everything from farming and roasting almonds to making the diploma covers that college graduates buy in their University gift shops. Some build custom motorcycles that retail at over US$30,000. In spite of bans on the sale of prison made goods in international law, such as the International Labour Organization’s 1930 Forced Labour Convention, such goods are sold commercially across the United States, including in state-run retail outlet stores.

Although these prison industries are owned and operated by state governments, private businesses sometimes partner with the state through ‘joint venture programs’. In many states, prisoners are leased or contracted directly to private firms. For example, Arizona Correctional Industries claims to have ‘provided over 2 million hours of labour to private sector companies’ since the year 2000. Its partners have included Cargill, Hickman’s Family Farms, and ESB Modular Manufacturing. Although these programmes appear to be expanding, it is important to emphasise that only about 6% of state inmates are estimated to work for private firms. Even in these schemes, the state benefits through revenue exchanged for prisoners’ labour.

The cost-savings and direct revenues accruing to federal and state governments through prison labour are substantial, offsetting the massive cost of incarcerating so many Americans. In addition, prison labour has become a key source of revenue for states coping with fiscal crisis. One notable example is the state of California, which faced prolonged and dramatic budget crisis between 2008 and 2012. In response the state has increasingly turned to prisons for skilled labour, replacing unionised and well-paid government employees with low-paid prisoners. California’s inmate fire fighter program reportedly saves the state $1 billion a year.

Slaves of the State

Just as in past, prison labour today is about far more than money. Prison continues to play a central role in anchoring the increasingly unequal and highly racialised social order that characterises contemporary US society. The majority of prisoners continue to be predominantly working class people of colour who have been incarcerated for minor offenses, such as theft, selling drugs, or property related crimes. If imprisonment is, as Loic Wacquant has described it, ‘the punitive regulation of poverty,’ then prison labour is one of the most corporeal forms of neoliberal discipline in existence today. It draws in the unemployed, disenfranchised, and discriminated against, trapping them into disciplines of precarious waged labour.

In keeping with historical precedents, the key architects and beneficiaries of prison labour remain federal and state governments. It has long been clear who retains the ultimate ownership of prisoners’ labour, with the Virginia Supreme Court declaring in 1871 that prisoners were ‘slaves of the state.’ This premise hasn’t fundamentally changed since. Attempts to attribute all blame to profit-driven corporations wrongly absolve governments of their primary responsibility in the exploitation of prison labour.

This article is a condensed version of a book chapter forthcoming in an issue of the Proceedings of the British Academy edited by Laura Brace and Julia O’Connell Davidson.

About the author

Genevieve LeBaron is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield, Chair of the Yale University Working Group on Modern Slavery, and a UK ESRC Future Research Leaders Fellow. You can follow her on twitter @glebaron

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