May 23, 2013
Locking Down an American Workforce
Posted on Apr 19, 2012
By Steve Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman
All the main extractive industries of the South were, in fact, wedded to the system. Turpentine and lumber camps deep in the fetid swamps and forest vastnesses of Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana commonly worked their convicts until they dropped dead from overwork or disease. The region’s plantation monocultures in cotton and sugar made regular use of imprisoned former slaves, including women. Among the leading families of Atlanta, Birmingham, and other “New South” metropolises were businessmen whose fortunes originated in the dank coal pits, malarial marshes, isolated forests, and squalid barracks in which their unfree peons worked, lived, and died.
Because it tended to grant absolute authority to private commercial interests and because its racial make-up in the post-slavery era was overwhelmingly African-American, the South’s convict-lease system was distinctive. Its caste nature is not only impossible to forget, but should remind us of the unbalanced racial profile of America’s bloated prison population today.
Moreover, this totalitarian-style control invited appalling brutalities in response to any sign of resistance: whippings, water torture, isolation in “dark cells,” dehydration, starvation, ice-baths, shackling with metal spurs riveted to the feet, and “tricing” (an excruciatingly painful process in which recalcitrant prisoners were strung up by the thumbs with fishing line attached to overhead pulleys). Even women in a hosiery mill in Tennessee were flogged, hung by the wrists, and placed in solitary confinement.
Living quarters for prisoner-workers were usually rat-infested and disease-ridden. Work lasted at least from sunup to sundown and well past the point of exhaustion. Death came often enough and bodies were cast off in unmarked graves by the side of the road or by incineration in coke ovens. Injury rates averaged one per worker per month, including respiratory failure, burnings, disfigurement, and the loss of limbs. Prison mines were called “nurseries of death.” Among Southern convict laborers, the mortality rate (not even including high levels of suicides) was eight times that among similar workers in the North—and it was extraordinarily high there.
The arrest cycle was synchronized with the business cycle, timed to the rise and fall of the demand for fresh labor. County and state treasuries similarly counted on such revenues, since the post-war South was so capital-starved that only renting out convicts assured that prisons could be built and maintained.
There was, then, every incentive to concoct charges or send people to jail for the most trivial offenses: vagrancy, gambling, drinking, partying, hopping a freight car, tarrying too long in town. A “pig law” in Mississippi assured you of five years as a prison laborer if you stole a farm animal worth more than $10. Theft of a fence rail could result in the same.
Penal Servitude in the Gilded Age North
In the North, where 80% of all U.S. prison labor was employed after the Civil War and which accounted for over $35 billion in output (in current dollars), the system was reconfigured to meet the needs of modern industry and the pressures of “the long Depression.” Convict labor was increasingly leased out only to a handful of major manufacturers in each state. These textile mills, oven makers, mining operations, hat and shoe factories—one in Wisconsin leased that state’s entire population of convicted felons—were then installing the kind of mass production methods becoming standard in much of American industry. As organized markets for prison labor grew increasingly oligopolistic (like the rest of the economy), the Depression of 1873 and subsequent depressions in the following decades wiped out many smaller businesses that had once gone trawling for convicts.
Today, we talk about a newly “flexible economy,” often a euphemism for the geometric growth of a precariously positioned, insecure workforce. The convict labor system of the nineteenth century offered an original specimen of perfect flexibility.
Companies leasing convicts enjoyed authority to dispose of their rented labor power as they saw fit. Workers were compelled to labor in total silence. Even hand gestures and eye contact were prohibited for the purpose of creating “silent and insulated working machines.”
Supervision of prison labor was ostensibly shared by employers and the prison authorities. In fact, many businesses did continue to conduct their operations within prison walls where they supplied the materials, power, and machinery, while the state provided guards, workshops, food, clothing, and what passed for medical care. As a matter of practice though, the foremen of the businesses called the shots. And there were certain states, including Nebraska, Washington, and New Mexico, that, like their Southern counterparts, ceded complete control to the lessee. As one observer put it, “Felons are mere machines held to labor by the dark cell and the scourge.”
Free market industrial capitalism, then and now, invariably draws on the aid of the state. In that system’s formative phases, the state has regularly used its coercive powers of taxation, expropriation, and in this case incarceration to free up natural and human resources lying outside the orbit of capitalism proper.
In both the North and the South, the contracting out of convict labor was one way in which that state-assisted mechanism of capital accumulation arose. Contracts with the government assured employers that their labor force would be replenished anytime a worker got sick, was disabled, died, or simply became too worn out to continue.
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