Prison Labor, Slavery & Capitalism In Historical Perspective

by Stephen Hartnett

Stephen Hartnett is a visiting lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California-Berkeley. He is also a volunteer instructor in California's San Quentin Prison.

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 Shaka's 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 offering prisoners a Faustian choice: fester in your cell with few opportunities for life-improving activities, or, as a means 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 prison's 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 a most hated activity ... This is why I adamantly refuse to work within the prison system: I unequivocally refuse to be a slave.

Shaka's 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 the cheap labor necessary for the first wave of colonization. Indeed, as detailed in both Peter Linebaugh's The London Hanged and A. R. Ekirch's 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 capitalist 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 Kentucky's prison labor to build roads and canals facilitating settler traffic westward into Indian lands. After winning this contract, Scott built 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. California's 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 California's 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. One of the responses to these crises was to build more prisons and then to lease the labor of 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 notion 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 Wheel 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 `em 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 of the most heavily capitalized sectors of the US economy, a number of failings are evident. For example, it has:
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 racist sentiments.

Indeed, much as the military-industrial complex fueled the economic juggernaut of the Reagan/Bush era's redistribution of wealth and resources, so now we are witnessing the production of a correctional-industrial complex in which society's 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 which an America ever more stratified by racial and class divisions retreats into armed enclaves where the promises and obligations of justice and democracy are increasingly replaced by a high-tech correctional-industrial police state.

California is a particularly cogent example of how the "needs" of the correctional-industrial complex lead toward a "fortress economy." Its budget for fiscal year 1996/97, for the first time ever, appropriated more money for prisons (9.9% of the budget, up from 2% in 1980) than for the University of California and California State University systems combined (9.5% of the budget, down from 12.6% in 1980). Put more simply, since 1980 California has slashed educational spending by roughly 25%, while raising prison spending by roughly 500%. The effects of this budgetary redistribution are already evident. Mike Davis reports that the decade from 1984 to 1994 saw California universities and colleges lose 8,000 employees, while the California Department of Corrections "hired 26,000 new employees to guard 112,000 new inmates." This redistribution of educational monies into the machinery of the correctional-industrial complex is also, whether intentionally or not, reproducing the fundamentally white-supremacist culture of antebellum slavery. The San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice reports that in California, the number of black men in prison (41,434) outnumbers black men in college (10,474) by a ratio of almost four-to-one.

The correctional-industrial complex is therefore a crucial element in reproducing racism. An equally insidious result of the correctional-industrial complex is that capitalists now have an economic stake in escalating imprisonment rates. For example, consider the case of Prince George County, Maryland, where Jon Greenberg reports that in addition to construction and maintenance costs, "The county spends about $4 million a year to buy everything from shoes to toothpaste." This massive outlay of county money may well contribute to the survival of some local businesses, but in most cases the recipients of such correctional largesse are major corporations. Their ability to profit from increased imprisonment in turn creates a correctional-industrial environment in which, as one of Greenberg's corrections industry interviewees states, "The talk is `three strikes and you're out' ... well, naturally that's going to translate into more sales. The more crooks you have the better business is for us."

Indeed, the correctional-industrial complex has been in such an accelerated boom cycle that J. Robert Lilly and Paul Knepper report that in 1986 Adtech Incorporated spun-off two subsidiary operations, the Correctional Development Corporation and American Detention Services Incorporated, and then in 1988 acquired Steel Door Industries, with the end result that profits rose from $10.3 million in 1987 to a remarkable $21.6 million in 1989. This doubling of profits is dwarfed by the 500% profit-growth over a five year period shown by Space Master Enterprises Incorporated (builders of pre-fabricated prison cells), which leapt from $12 million in 1982 to $60 million in 1987. The rapid emergence of the correctional-industrial complex has fueled the development of new forms of disciplinary technology. Much like the endless stream of hardware produced by the military-industrial complex, these have not enhanced the daily lives of Americans yet have made their manufacturers millions of dollars via lucrative deals with federal, state and county governments.

While it has been estimated that up to 25% of all American children live under the poverty line, and hence struggle to meet their daily nutritional needs, the correctional-industrial complex has spawned a parallel subsidized food economy. Indeed, feeding prisoners has become a major growth industry totaling over $1 billion a year. A Campbell Soup Company representative thus recently celebrated the fact that "the nation's prison system is the fastest growing food service market." Prince George County, for example, contracts its Prison food services with Szabo Correctional Services. According to its President Bill Barrett, Szabo has grown "within the last five years from a $20 million company to an $85 million company."

As the correctional-industrial complex provides capitalists with imprisoned consumers, it also provides them with cheap labor. For example, the Oregon Department of Corrections has been using prison laborers to produce a "Prison Blues" line of clothing (for public sale both in America and primarily in Asia) with projected yearly sales of over $1.2 million. Despite these profits, prisoners are reportedly earning real wages (their $8 an hour wage minus state-imposed restitution fees, and room and board charges) of $1.80 an hour. The largest network of prison labor is run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons' 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 the 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 Campbell's 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 this 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 the long-term needs of a democratic society struggling with the questions 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 Shaka's cell-mates, observes that his experiences 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 basketball and handball games. An educational curriculum with General Educational Development Certificates for sale. A vocational school that grants Associates Degrees with honors to students who rebuild cars, lawnmowers, air-conditioners, boats, and motorcycles, anything that's requested, for corrupt prison officials and their private enterprises. So much for the work fact, jobs in prison can be described, at best, as training in the discipline of graft.


On the historical relations among prison, labor, slavery, and imperialism

Ayers, E. L. Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century American South. Oxford University Press, 1984.

Ekirch, A. R. Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775. Clarendon Press, 1987.

Feeley, M. M. "The Privatization of Prisons in Historical Perspective," Criminal Justice Research Bulletin 6:2, 1-10, 1991.

Linebaugh, P. The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge University Press, 1991.

McAfee, W. "San Quentin: The Forgotten Issue of California's Political History in the 1850s." Southern California Quarterly 62:3, 235-259, Fall 1990.

Melossi, D. The Prisons and the Factory: Origins of the Penitentiary System. Barnes & Noble, 1981.

Novak, D. The Wheel of Servitude: Black Forced Labor After Slavery. University of Kentucky, 1978.

Rothman, D. The Discovery of the 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, & Macallair. From Classrooms 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.

"NCCD 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 Criminal 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.

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