Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Using US prison labour to make crime pay

Under the guise of ‘prisoner rehabilitation,’ US prison-made products are silently infiltrating consumer markets and propping up its carceral empire, much as they have throughout US history. 

Alex Lichtenstein
22 April 2015


US 77 at Turner Falls overlook, near Davis, OK. Jason B./Flickr. Creative Commons.

Americans like myself tend to imagine that convict labour, hidden as it often is behind high walls, resides in the backwaters of the economy and the history of southern chain gangs. At most, Americans reckon that our license plates might be made for the state by underpaid inmates. But we certainly don’t imagine call centre staffers taking hotel reservations to be prisoners. Nor do we think that American military uniforms, solar power panels, surge protectors, computer circuit boards, hamburgers, or American flags are the products of prison labour.

Often times they are. Even the hormone-free tilapia sold at Whole Foods comes from a prison-run fish farm in Colorado. Some of these ‘prison industries’ are organised entirely by state correctional departments or the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In 37 states there are joint-ventures with private businesses, many of them America’s leading companies.  The Department of Corrections in my home state, Indiana, proudly offers “private sector partnerships,” noting that “businesses benefit from a dependable labour pool, ample production space, and capacity inside Indiana correctional facilities.”

Since the foundation of the American penitentiary system in the early nineteenth century, convict labour has more often than not been found at the cutting edge of the nation’s economic system. Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, established in 1829, set prisoners to handicraft work in isolation in their cells. Designed to instil discipline, penitence, and reformation, this form of prison labour also produced shoes, textiles, and other artisan-made goods for the growing market in consumable goods beyond the prison's walls.

This system soon came to be regarded as an inefficient means of exploiting captive labour in the era of expanding industrialisation. The ‘Pennsylvania system’ of isolated prison labour shortly gave way to the rival ‘congregate system’—that is to say, prisons that doubled as factories. The rehabilitative model of penal labour, while still preached, gave way to more practical questions of the output of prison-made goods.

If prisons in the northern states came to resemble factories, those in the South followed their own distinctive path following the Civil War. Images of chained road gangs working under the whip and gun are well-known. What is less understood is just how essential this new form of slave labour was to the broader economic development of the region. Brutally treated as they were, southern prisoners (nearly all of them African American) worked in key industrial sectors. They were ‘leased out’ not only because this was profitable for the state and cheap for employers. Forcing prisoners to work in the harshest jobs in the fastest growing sectors of the New South’s economy was considered the only way of bringing cheap labour into these areas.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Southern prisoners built railroads, dug coal, tapped turpentine forests, made bricks, farmed cotton and sugar on enormous plantations, and generally laboured in the most important sectors of the region’s extractive economy. When the leasing of prisoners to private businesses came to an end in the early twentieth century—often through the objections of organised labour—the states put convicts to work building roads across rural areas that badly needed them. The chain gang helped usher in economic progress and state control of penal labour. At the time, penal experts touted the chain gang as a reform, a means of providing the discipline of honest work and the healthiness of fresh air to previously privately leased convicts.

And what about today? As in the past, the language of a “dependable labour pool” is almost always twinned with the rhetoric of rehabilitation. Indiana’s Department of Corrections touts its prison industries as an “effective way to curb idleness among an ever-increasing prison population and a cost-effective means of providing offenders with marketable job skills.” But at the end of the day, with pay scales unhindered by minimum wages, work ungoverned by local labour laws, and a labour force with little in the way of choice, prison production is really all about that tilapia for $9.99 a pound. The ‘beneficiaries’ here are not the inmates. They are the states that can continue to rely on incarceration without breaking the bank, the corporations profiting from their hyper-exploited labour, and you and me – the unknowing consumers of these inexpensive prison-made products.

Goods made for public consumption, rather than for the state, are produced by a minority of the over two million state and federal prisoners in the US. But that’s only part of the picture. Prisoners themselves, as they were in the postbellum South, have become commodities for the growing private prison industry. They are sold to contractors who profit as much from the number of bodies they warehouse as from the inmates’ productive labour. Furthermore, incarceration generates additional income by creating a market in security goods: tasers and razor wire, food and health services, overpriced phone calls, and facilities for families visiting prisons, not to mention jobs for correctional officers in regions suffering from a lack of remunerative work.

This profoundly reflects our current economic era, one in which services, rent-taking, and the privatisation of public goods underlay the capitalist social order in the US, much the way coal mines, steel mills, and textile plants did a generation ago. In many impoverished communities, the private prison has replaced the factory as a generator of local jobs. And while mass incarceration provides work to the keepers, the kept represent the detritus of post-industrial capitalism, the perpetually jobless from hollowed out urban cores like North Philadelphia. Not far, in fact, from the site of the original Eastern State Penitentiary, which now stands as a local tourist attraction.

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