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Locking Down an American Workforce

Posted on Apr 19, 2012
flee the cities (CC-BY)

By Steve Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman

This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.

Sweatshop labor is back with a vengeance. It can be found across broad stretches of the American economy and around the world.   Penitentiaries have become a niche market for such work.  The privatization of prisons in recent years has meant the creation of a small army of workers too coerced and right-less to complain.

Prisoners, whose ranks increasingly consist of those for whom the legitimate economy has found no use, now make up a virtual brigade within the reserve army of the unemployed whose ranks have ballooned along with the U.S. incarceration rate.  The Corrections Corporation of America and G4S (formerly Wackenhut), two prison privatizers, sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM.

These companies can, in most states, lease factories in prisons or prisoners to work on the outside.  All told, nearly a million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses, or manufacturing textiles, shoes, and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day. 

Rarely can you find workers so pliable, easy to control, stripped of political rights, and subject to martial discipline at the first sign of recalcitrance—unless, that is, you traveled back to the nineteenth century when convict labor was commonplace nationwide.  Indeed, a sentence of “confinement at hard labor” was then the essence of the American penal system.  More than that, it was one vital way the United States became a modern industrial capitalist economy—at a moment, eerily like our own, when the mechanisms of capital accumulation were in crisis.


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A Yankee Invention

What some historians call “the long Depression” of the nineteenth century, which lasted from the mid-1870s through the mid-1890s, was marked by frequent panics and slumps, mass bankruptcies, deflation, and self-destructive competition among businesses designed to depress costs, especially labor costs.  So, too, we are living through a twenty-first century age of panics and austerity with similar pressures to shrink the social wage. 

Convict labor has been and once again is an appealing way for business to address these dilemmas.  Penal servitude now strikes us as a barbaric throwback to some long-lost moment that preceded the industrial revolution, but in that we’re wrong.  From its first appearance in this country, it has been associated with modern capitalist industry and large-scale agriculture. 

And that is only the first of many misconceptions about this peculiar institution.  Infamous for the brutality with which prison laborers were once treated, indelibly linked in popular memory (and popular culture) with images of the black chain gang in the American South, it is usually assumed to be a Southern invention.  So apparently atavistic, it seems to fit naturally with the retrograde nature of Southern life and labor, its economic and cultural underdevelopment, its racial caste system, and its desperate attachment to the “lost cause.” 

As it happens, penal servitude—the leasing out of prisoners to private enterprise, either within prison walls or in outside workshops, factories, and fields—was originally known as a “Yankee invention.”

First used at Auburn prison in New York State in the 1820s, the system spread widely and quickly throughout the North, the Midwest, and later the West.  It developed alongside state-run prison workshops that produced goods for the public sector and sometimes the open market. 

A few Southern states also used it.  Prisoners there, as elsewhere, however, were mainly white men, since slave masters, with a free hand to deal with the “infractions” of their chattel, had little need for prison.  The Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery would, in fact, make an exception for penal servitude precisely because it had become the dominant form of punishment throughout the free states. 

Nor were those sentenced to “confinement at hard labor” restricted to digging ditches or other unskilled work; nor were they only men.  Prisoners were employed at an enormous range of tasks from rope- and wagon-making to carpet, hat, and clothing manufacturing (where women prisoners were sometimes put to work), as well coal mining, carpentry, barrel-making, shoe production, house-building, and even the manufacture of rifles.  The range of petty and larger workshops into which the felons were integrated made up the heart of the new American economy. 

Observing a free-labor textile mill and a convict-labor one on a visit to the United States, novelist Charles Dickens couldn’t tell the difference.  State governments used the rental revenue garnered from their prisoners to meet budget needs, while entrepreneurs made outsized profits either by working the prisoners themselves or subleasing them to other businessmen. 

Convict Labor in the ‘New South’

After the Civil War, the convict-lease system metamorphosed.  In the South, it became ubiquitous, one of several grim methods—including the black codes, debt peonage, the crop-lien system, lifetime labor contracts, and vigilante terror—used to control and fix in place the newly emancipated slave.  Those “freedmen” were eager to pursue their new liberty either by setting up as small farmers or by exercising the right to move out of the region at will or from job to job as “free wage labor” was supposed to be able to do.

If you assumed, however, that the convict-lease system was solely the brainchild of the apartheid all-white “Redeemer” governments that overthrew the Radical Republican regimes (which first ran the defeated Confederacy during Reconstruction) and used their power to introduce Jim Crow to Dixie, you would be wrong again.  In Georgia, for instance, the Radical Republican state government took the initiative soon after the war ended.  And this was because the convict-lease system was tied to the modernizing sectors of the post-war economy, no matter where in Dixie it was introduced or by whom.

So convicts were leased to coal-mining, iron-forging, steel-making, and railroad companies, including Tennessee Coal and Iron (TC&I), a major producer across the South, especially in the booming region around Birmingham, Alabama.  More than a quarter of the coal coming out of Birmingham’s pits was then mined by prisoners.  By the turn of the century, TC&I had been folded into J.P. Morgan’s United States Steel complex, which also relied heavily on prison laborers.

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By heterochromatic, April 24, 2012 at 3:56 pm Link to this comment

Griffith—- sorry that you think that citing the 13th Amendment is indicative of a
disconnect from reality….....

might be some confusion on your part.

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By heterochromatic, April 24, 2012 at 3:54 pm Link to this comment

I thought the agenda has always been pretty transparent….... America views the
sale and usage of street drugs as a not a good thing, and believes that criminal
penalties for sales is a method of discouraging people from engaging in those

Report this

By Salome, April 24, 2012 at 1:46 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

So now the agenda for locking up so many people for drug crimes becomes transparent.

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By heterochromatic, April 24, 2012 at 11:16 am Link to this comment

I’m saying that felons are indeed human and that terrorists are human too.

criminals are human and some of them have forfeited their rights to be considered
a decent human deserving decent treatment. some have shown themselves to be
but barely human and some have not.

all they have in common is that they’ve lost their claim to freedom and a full
measure of rights and protections.

Report this
vector56's avatar

By vector56, April 24, 2012 at 9:09 am Link to this comment

So, you are saying those who commit crimes are still human and their humanity should be considered regardless of what they have done?

Might one even go so far as to extend these basic human rights to the “New N*ggers”, Terrorist?

Report this

By heterochromatic, April 24, 2012 at 7:54 am Link to this comment

involuntary slavery for those that aren’t human seems to be pretty well accepted in
the world, vec…..using the labor of animals was and is common and usually
accepted .

if you’re trying to get me to me accept that involuntary servitude for felons means
that I view felons as less than human, I’m not going along with that one.

crime is all too human ...and requiring labor of criminals is not due to viewing
them as non-human.

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vector56's avatar

By vector56, April 24, 2012 at 6:34 am Link to this comment

“Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. “

Ok, I get it; but this tells me that as long as “slavery” is (was) legal and it is being done to those you see as less than human you would support it?

heterochromatic; you would have fit right into the Confederacy.

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By Marian Griffith, April 24, 2012 at 1:36 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

—(Re: Not paying prisoners for their forced labour would make them slaves) vec—- yes, it would be….and that’s not a problem.—-

And the fact that you can not see a problem here points out a complete disconnect between you and morality.

Since I have no right to tell you to leave, I do the next best thing and tell you I really do not want to know you or your opinions any more, seeing that to me they have no redeeming qualities.

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By heterochromatic, April 23, 2012 at 5:56 pm Link to this comment

vec—- yes, it would be….and that’s not a problem. being a convicted felon puts
people in a position where they’ve pissed way most of their rights.

give a glance to the 13th Amendment for a refresher about that.

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vector56's avatar

By vector56, April 23, 2012 at 5:43 pm Link to this comment

“there’s little
reason to pay imprisoned felons for required labor and thw proceeds of their labor
should be applied to the cost of the penal justice system, not to for-profit
enterprises. “


I agree that Prison should remain Public, but not paying them for their labor would be “slavery”.

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By Jeff N., April 20, 2012 at 1:19 pm Link to this comment

Bunch of troglodytes.

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By heterochromatic, April 20, 2012 at 1:03 pm Link to this comment

prisons should not be operated as other than public institutions and there’s little
reason to pay imprisoned felons for required labor and thw proceeds of their labor
should be applied to the cost of the penal justice system, not to for-profit

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prisnersdilema's avatar

By prisnersdilema, April 20, 2012 at 9:31 am Link to this comment

Chimerika, has long ago become, a Hobbesian society where the lives of the 99%, fulfill
at least 2 thirds of Thomas Hobbs description of life as nasty, brutish and short.

Though lives may be longer, it is doubtful they are enjoyable on a diet of soda, cheap
beer, prescription medications sold illegally by drug dealers, and pornograpic violent
entertainment. That in itself is part of the torment, you must endure by living in

You cannot live in freedom, when those that control your government believe in slavery.

Report this

By tussah, April 20, 2012 at 9:27 am Link to this comment

WOW, indeed, gerard…comprehensive education I never received.

There is never any rest from the exploitative nature of some rapacious humans.

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By Jim Yell, April 20, 2012 at 6:53 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As stories start leaking into the press about corporations conspiring with Judges to sentence people to incarceration solely to keep up the bottom line of private prisons, the question should be “why are for profit prison even allowed?” In a country with our history of Slave Labor we should be very sensitive to allowing such unfair use of authority and besides once again the privatization mantra turns out to be a fraud. It was in healthcare which has created a system where even fairly affluent people can not afford to pay medical costs and for the vast majority of American Workers health care is a bad joke.

Well maybe these jackasses will over play their hand and we will finally go back to “America” instead of head long into opression.

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By SoTexGuy, April 20, 2012 at 4:48 am Link to this comment

A free thinking friend of mine predicted the boom in the inmate populations and private prisons about 30 years ago.. Nuts, I told him! He’s a very wealthy man now!  who hasn’t had to work for the last dozen years.

He also predicted that the next stage, after there are too many convicts to contain at any price that society can afford, will be the wealthy and the corporations buying people’s sentences.. In this way they gain the convict’s service for all or some portion of their sentence.. like old time debt slaves, or just slaves.

Him having been so entirely right in the first instance makes me think he may well be right about the next phase.

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By rtb61, April 19, 2012 at 9:48 pm Link to this comment

So how long will it be until you will be able to long term lease them for their term of imprisonment ie buy them for five or ten years.
Be able to directly enforce physical punishment, engage in legal bondage and sadism.
Will women and children also be up for sale.
USA slavery it’s build into them, they always return to it and they can never ever be trusted.
This is the way they treat their own and you already know they treat foreigners far worse best keep them as far away as possible.

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By gerard, April 19, 2012 at 8:50 pm Link to this comment

Wow!  A very comprehensive, tough, clear-headed article. I wonder how many people experienced my same lack of education.  So help me God, the only aspect of this horrific problem that I ever heard of in any coherent way—in any classroom—was southern slavery associated with the Civil War and the isolation, neglect and betrayal of indigenous tribes. I heard some family discussions of steal and coal mine strikes, abuses, lock-outs, and such, too occasionally “taught”—sort of—but never the whole picture as this article shows.
  One encouraging thing, though:  Some reforms that required hundreds and thousands of concerted efforts did improve the overall situations here and there, somewhat, and for a time—which proves that strong efforts over time, by people who are consecrated to a cause can effect good results.
  Thank you so much for this article.  It points in the direction where we ourselves must go—and soon.

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