Prison Labor, Slavery and Capitalism in Historical Perspective
by Stephen Hartnett
Shaka is an intellectually hungry young man who, due to a first-time arrest on a nonviolent drug charge, has spent the past twelve years struggling to maintain his sanity in a medium-security prison in Indiana. One of Shakaís chief dilemmas - among the daily prospects of rape, gang violence, harassment by guards, and the deafening anomie of boredom - is that the prison he is in has instituted a policy of offering prisoners a Faustian choice: fester in your cell with few opportunities for life-improving activities, or, as a mean of escaping the drudgery of confinement, work in a prison-administered factory. Despite the welcome opportunities for physical activity and conversation with fellow prisoners offered by the prisonís work program, Shaka is adamant that he will not labor for the prison. He explains his reasoning as follows:
During slavery, work was understood to be a punishment, and became despised as any punishment is despised. Work became hated as does any activity which accomplishes no reward for the doer. Work became identified with slavery, and slavery with punishing work, thus work came to be the most hated activityÖ This is why I adamantly refuse to work within the prison system: I unequivocally refuse to be a slave.
Shakaís comparison of contemporary prison labor and antebellum slavery may seem hyperbolic or even melodramatic, but in fact Shaka is historically accurate and politically astute in linking prison, labor and slavery. This is perhaps the most productive means of thinking about the role of what I call "the correctional-industrial complex."
Historical Perspectives on Prisons, Slavery, and Imperialism
It is important to recall that many of the first settlers of the "New World" were actually British, Scottish, Irish, French, German and Dutch convicts sold into indentured servitude. Selling "criminals" to the companies exploring the Americas lowered the cost of maintaining European prisons (since they could remain relatively small), enabled the traditional elite to rid themselves of potential political radicals, and provided cheap labor necessary for the first wave of colonization. Indeed, as detailed in both Peter Linebaughís The London Hanged and A.R. Ekirchís Bound for America, there is a strong historical relationship between the need for policing the unruly working classes, fueling the military and economic needs of the capitalistic class, and greasing the wheels of imperialism with both indentured servants and outright slavery.
An early US example of this three-pronged relationship occurred in Frankfurt, Kentucky in 1825. Joel Scott paid $1,000 for control of Kentuckyís prison labor to build roads and canals facilitating settler traffic westward into Indian lands. After winning this contract, Scott his own private 250-cell prison to house his new "workers." In a similar deal in 1844, Louisiana began leasing the labor of the prisoners in its Baton Rouge State Penitentiary to private contractors for $50,000 a year. Californiaís San Quentin prison illustrates this same historical link between prison labor and capitalism. In 1852, J.M. Estill and M.G. Vallejo swapped land that was to become the site of the state capital for the management of Californiaís prison laborers. These three antebellum examples are not typical of pre-Civil War labor arrangements, however. The institution of slavery in the South and the unprecedented migration of poor Europeans to America in the North provided the capitalist elite with ample labor at rock bottom prices. This left prison labor as a risky resource exploited by only the most adventurous capitalists.
Prison labor became a more significant part of modern capitalism during Reconstruction because the Civil War made immigration to America dangerous, left the U.S. economically devastated, and deprived capitalism of its lucrative slave labor. On of the responses to these crises was to build more prisons and then to lease the labor of the prisoners, many of whom were ex-slaves, to labor-hungry capitalists.
"Burdened with heavy taxes to meet the expenses of rebuilding the shattered economy, and committed to the traditional nation that convicts should, by their labor, reimburse the government for their maintenance and even create additional revenue, the master class, drawing on its past experience with penitentiary leases, reintroduced a system of penal servitude which would make public slaves of blacks and poor and friendless whites."
- J.T. Sellin, Slavery and the Penal System
The conditions of such leased prison labor - much like the conditions of both plantation slave labor and Northern factory work before the War - were atrocious. For example, D.A. Novak reveals in The Wheels of Servitude: Black Forced Labor After Slavery that the death rate of prisoners leased to railroad companies between 1877 and 1879 was 45 % in South Carolina, 25 % in Arkansas, and 16 % in Mississippi. Conditions in the labor camps of the Texas State Penitentiary in Galveston were so bad that 62 prisoners died in 1871 alone. Thus, prisons have been linked historically to forced labor, inhumane working conditions, reproduction of slavery-like conditions, and the imperial needs of a rising capitalist elite. Given this perspective, the trend of privatizing both prisons and prison labor may be seen not so much as a recent reaction of the "lock ëem up" generation, but rather - as suggested earlier by Shaka - as one of the fundamental historical links between prison, slavery, and capitalism.
The Correctional-Industrial Complex
While the correctional-industrial complex has become one the most heavily capitalized sectors of the US economy, a number of failings are evident. For example, it has:
not proven effective at rehabilitating prisoners
not lowered crime rates and in fact bears no relationship to crime rates
coincided with the most profound escalation of violence among young men in our national history and pursued imprisonment patterns that indicate deeply racist practices
The National Council on Crime and Delinquency estimates that over the next ten years state and federal expenditures on prisons will amount to $351 billion. Some critics charge that the correctional-industrial complex (along with its corresponding "war on drugs") is but a form of state-sponsored subsidy, a post-Cold War form of corporate welfare enabling the circulation of federal capital into friendly pockets while simultaneously appealing to popular racists sentiments.
Indeed, much as the military-industrial complex fueled the economic juggernaut of the Reagan/Bush eraís redistribution of wealth and resources, so now we are witnessing the production of a correctional-industrial complex in which societyís already limited resources and funds are redistributed away from social justice-based forms of spending in favor of imprisonment. For example, while states are cutting spending on education, housing, health care, and other long-term infrastructural necessities, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that state spending on prison construction increased 612% between 1979 and 1990. The American Friends Service Committee characterizes this redistribution of wealth, resources, and possibilities as part of an oncoming "fortress economy" in prison labor is run by the Federal Bureau of Prisonsí manufacturing consortium, UNICOR. While paying inmate laborers entry-level wages of 23 cents an hour, UNICOR boasts of gross annual sales (primarily to the Department of Defense) of $250 million.
The correctional-industrial complex therefore relies on a sobering "joint venture" directly relating profits to increased incarceration rates for four kinds of "partners," only first of whom are those seeking opportunities in prison construction. A second kind of partner stocks these prisons with stun guns, pepper spray, surveillance equipment, and other "disciplinary technology," corporations such as Adtech, American Detention Services, the Correctional Corporation of America and Space Master Enterprises. A third partner finds a state-guaranteed mass of consumers for food and other services in the prisoners themselves, such as Campbellís Soup and Szabo Correctional Services. The fourth partner can be any private industry or state-sponsored program that stands to gain from paying wages that only nominally distinguish captive forced labor from slavery. In the last category, an example of the former is Prison Blues and of the latter is UNICOR which uses prisoners to produce advanced military weaponary.
Capitalism, slavery, and prison labor thus appear as firmly wedded today as in the eighteenth century. Indeed, the evidence presented above suggests that the short-term benefits the correctional-industrial complex offers to capitalists contrasts sharply with long-term needs of a democratic society struggling with the question of how to reduce violence, how to redistribute social wealth, how to address its troubled racial history and how to enable more citizens - regardless of race or class - to play productive and creative roles in their communities.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Sol, one of Shakaís cell-mates, observes that his experience with the mind-numbing corruption of both prison and prison-based labor as having amounted to little more than "training in the discipline of graft":
A chow hall assignment without standards "just do it." A job in the Department of Recreation where the standards are measured in terms of improvement of your basketnall and handball games. An educational curriculum with General Educational Development Certificate for sale. A vocational school that grants Associates Degrees with honors to students who rebuild cars, lawnmowers, air-conditioners, boats, and motorcycles, anything thatís requested, for corrupt prison officials and their private enterprises. So much for the work ethicÖin fact, jobs in prison can be described, at best, as training in the discipline of graft.
Novak, D. The Wheel of Servitude: Black Forced Labor After Slavery. University of Kentucky, 1978.
Rothman, D. The Discovery of Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic. Little, Brown & Co., 1971.
Sellin, J.T, Slavery and the Penal System. Elsevier, 1976.
On the correctional-industrial complex
Christie, N. Crime Control as Industry. Routledge, 1994.
Connolly, McDermid, Schiraldi, & Macalair. From Classroom to Cell Blocks: How Prison Building Affects Higher Education and African American Enrollment. Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice, 1996.
Davis, M. " Hell Factories in the Field: A Prison-Industrial Complex." The Nation 260:7, 229-234, 20 Feb. 1995.
Greenberg, J. "Building and Maintaining Prisons is a Growth Industry." All Things Considered. National Public Radio, 3 Aug. 1994.
Levasseur, R.L. "Armed and Dangerous." Prison News Service 42, 9, 1993.
Lichtenstein, A. The Fortress Economy: The Economic Role of the U.S. Prison System. American Friends Service Committee, 1990.
Lilly, J.R."The Corrections-Commercial Complex." Crime & Delinquency, 39:2, 150-166, Apr. 1993.
McDonald, D.C. Private Prisons and the Public Interest. Rutgers University Press, 1990.
"NCDD Analysis Finds." Corrections Digest 25:5, 1-4, 9 Mar. 1994.
Parenti, C. "Making Prison Pay." The Nation 262:4, 11-14, 29 Jan. 1996.
Reiman, J. The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminial Justice. MacMillan, 1979.
Shichor, D. Punishment for Profit: Private Prisons/Public Concerns. Sage. 1995
Wright, P. Captive Labor: US Business Goes to jail." Covert Action Quarterly 60, 26-31, Spr. 1997.
Prisonersí testimonies are used with their permission.