Free «Prison Labor in the United States» Essay Sample


Penal labor is the type of not free labor when prisoners have to perform certain work, usually manual labor. This work can be hard or light, depending on the committed crime. There are various types of sentences that involve penal labor: imprisonment with hard labor and penal servitude. Prison labor can also define other related situations: labor to occupy the convicts, hard work as a form of punishment, and even the application of the convicts’ labor to provide the working hands in different institutions across the country. Such situations can be only applied as a form of punishment to those, who are imprisoned for religious, political, war or some other reasons as well as to some criminal convicts. The implementations of prison labor on a large-scale are conducted in labor camps, penal colonies, and prison farms.

Punitive labor, as prison labor can also be referred to, includes two types of work: productive work (for example, industrial work) and quite pointless tasks, which are given to convicts as primitive physical torment or occupational therapy. From time to time, authorities may turn prison labor into a real industry, as it is observed in a prison farm. In this case, the search for income from prisoners’ productive labor can even outdo the concern about punishment and the prisoners then can face the risk of being exploited as slaves for performing very cheap labor (the profits are usually very small especially after expenses, for example, on security). From the other point of view, in Victorian prisons, the convicts were commonly forced to work on the treadmill. Sometimes, this was a very productive work to grind grain; however, in the majority of cases, it served no purpose. Punishments of this kind also included the crank machine, where a prisoner had to turn a special crank that simply pushed paddles in a drum with sand, or shot drill, where a prisoner carried cannonballs from one place to another for no purpose at all. Half-punitive labor included many other types of making the convicts busy, for example oakum-picking, which allowed producing materials for sailing vessels (Fabrice, 2010). However, the history of the prison labor is much more extensive and can give a good insight into the situation with prisoners of the present day.

History of the Prison Labor in the Northern States

In the beginning of the nineteenth century a new industrial prison-contracting system emerged. The efficiency of this innovative system was generally recognized, therefore, it spread rapidly during the period of the industrial revolution, marking the first significant wave of beneficial prison labor in the United States. According to the contract system, all states started selling their property right for prisoners’ labor to a couple of the largest corporations of that period in exchange for substantive profits – frequently up to 150 percent of all costs of carceral governing. Having to face constant cruel punishment for a disagreement to work, convicts worked very hard for various private companies, which built factories both inside the state and federal prisons.

Imprisoned at a time of significant commotion and fight over the terms of profitable employment, the prison-contracting system satisfied the demands of the Northern capitalists for a well-disciplined and cheap labor force on the background of the labor scarcities and mutinies at the time of the beginning of industrialization. The system also gave states the opportunity to receive the necessary income to fund the huge carceral expansions, needed to anchor the growing order of racial discrimination, inequality in gender and social position. Because of this, it became a crucial part in introducing and establishing the forms of market discipline, essential to this period of capitalism across the Northern part of the country (LeBaron, 2012).

The labor force, however, was not accepted equally by all people, and the difference in views was becoming drastic with each new law adopted by the government.  On the one hand, a strong need from the prospering industrialists of the North for a cheap and reliable working force in front of numerous labor shortages and mutinies (including the legal abolition of different forms of unfree labor) added up and reinforced greatly the laws of the northern states, which were adopted to establish the burgeoning capitalist order in the society. As a result, the carceral population increased fourfold during 1855-1885 (Kann, 2005).

However, on the other hand, by contracting inmates’ labor to various private companies, states had a chance to avoid the majority of expenses that could have otherwise been linked with blooming market participation of the working poor (particularly immigrants, blacks, and women from lower class) through laws criminalizing idleness and poverty. Therefore, the contract system instilled working discipline into prisoners, while fostering the compliance of the poor with a social order that began to be increasingly characterized by inequality at the same time.

While prison labor is frequently considered to be an out-of-date form of work, the prison factories in the Northern states were some of the highly disciplined and most technologically advanced industries in the United States. Indeed, with the beginning of the industrial revolution outside of prison walls, the labor inside the prisons began changing. Prison workshops used the same geometric patterns of the free factories, which were appearing continuously in all larger cities more and more, and the division of labor was more efficiently conducted (LeBaron, 2012).

Contractors reorganized the way of labor evaluation in prison factories, altering timed work into task work, which led to dramatic increase in profit and production rates. By 1840, the overwhelming majority of national prisons looked like the textile factories for which the American industry was so well-known at that time.    From 75 up to 95 percent of prisoners in the North worked in industrial factories of a large scale, producing over thirty billion US dollars (in 2005 dollar rate) per year in selling goods already in the beginning of the 1880s (McLennan, 2008, 90).

When taking into consideration the working conditions of inmates, adults frequently worked fourteen-sixteen hours each day and children toiled from ten to twelve hours. Inmates were frequently beaten up badly for not sticking to certain rules, accidentally breaking equipment, not producing the pre-determined number of items during the fixed time, and sometimes just arbitrarily.

As social fights over the conditions and terms of labor burst out outside of prison walls as weavers, free shoemakers, and tailors struggled and rebelled constantly against the speedups, small wages, and growing mechanization as a result of rapid industrialization, prison contractors determined to obtain as much working profits from their imprisoned laborers as possible. To gain it, they raised productivity and increased control in the prison factories. The conditions of the inmates were worsening (McLennan, 2008, 119).

Moreover, with the expansion of the contractors, the demand for strong men grew. Therefore, they simply replaced any inmate worker who died or became sick because of overwork. Despite the need of strong and healthy men, the laborers were treated worse than it is possible to imagine, suffering constantly multiple work-related injuries. From the 1820s and up to the 1850s, the majority of penitentiaries applied a whip to secure discipline, however, the growing deadly working conditions that reached its peak during the1860s–1870s made the imposition of even harsher types of punishment. Torture became a standard and the machines, which produced goods, were also used to punish the laborers severely (Fabrice, 2010).

The economic advantages obtained by the companies, which used inmate labor during that period were drastic, and most of them facilitated annual profit margins twice their costs (McLennan, 2008, 84). Companies did not have to pay rent for storage, buildings, or insurance, and gave only very low (if any at all) money for labor discipline and supervision. Probably most importantly, prison contractors bought inmate labor far below free-market rates.

Crucially, but the tactical and political application of prison labor, the simplicity with which it could be disciplined and organized, and its availability and cheapness, influenced greatly the formation of the labor and industrialization outside of the prison walls. For example, in 1885–1886, which were profitable years, American convicts performed work or made goods worth 29million US dollars, a substantial share in the gross domestic product (McLennan, 2008, 90).

Nonetheless the fact that the prison contract system was not openly discussed in terms of political economy, it played a vital role in establishing the labor forms as well as social discipline endemic to the industrialization of the United States. Even after the formal freedom, given to the discriminated layers of society by the Thirteenth Amendment, different forms of indenture and restriction persisted, especially for people of Irish, German, Chinese, and indigenous origins. According to the belief that only entrepreneurs, farmers, and artisans were regarded as “free men” in the frames of the ideology of that era, a complex of criminal codes and restrictive labor disciplined women, immigrants, and black people (LeBaron, 2012).

As the norm of economic mobility and land ownership became linked with white men, over three million immigrants who came to the North in 1865-1873 due to the “Act to

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Encourage Immigration” did not become a part of a neutral wage labor market.  These alterations reflected the demand for turning the large layer of constantly poor citizens as well as all new immigrants into a reliable, permanent, and immobile class of wage-laborers.

In addition, as industrialization and immigration fed each other, the amount of foreign convicts rose greatly constituting five times more the amount found in free society. The proportion of women in different state prisons was quite low, however, in the lower class penal institutions this proportion increased sharply, especially due to the increase of prostitution.

The Lease System for Convicts in the South

After the 1865 Thirteenth Amendment expanded and institutionalized the prison labor by allowing involuntary servitude “as punishment for a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” another system of inmate hard work – the convict lease system – spread widely in the South of the United States. According to this system, Southern states leased big blocks of (practically completely African Americans) inmates as laborers to the area’s influential capitalists, who exploited convicts during their sentences or, oftener, until they died at work. This system fulfilled the need of capitalists from the South in a disciplined and cheap labor force after the abolition of slavery (Lichtenstein, 1996). Simultaneously, corporate lease fees gave states the necessary money to fund a huge expansion of carceral power.

No new prisons were built in the South; convicts were sent directly to cotton and sugar plantations, as well as to turpentine farms, railroad constructions, coalmines, brickyards, phosphate beds, and sawmills. Prison labor became a central force in the process of modernization of the out-of-date region (Lichtenstein, 1996). Railroad construction opened a new opportunity for the Southern capitalists – in the form of vast, unexploited areas of natural resources, and the cheap labor of inmates was the best tool to mine them. The revenues from the prison labor for the South were as large as for the North – millions of dollars flew to the state’s treasury thanks to the spilled blood of the convicts.

Conditions in the lease system were even worse than those in the North: convicts often worked for fifteen-seventeen hours each day and a couple of remaining hours they spent being stuffed into rolling iron cages entirely in shackles even while eating and sleeping. The food was very bad and poor, therefore, many of the inmates were ill and too weak to do such a hard work. They were punished for the same reasons as Northerners (Lichtenstein, 1996). To summarize, the conditions of the prisoners in labor were so bad that it could not be even compared with their lives as slaves.

However, the deadly labor force also had another side, which was quite different from the positive, profitable one. The result of inmate leasing was the vast degradation of work in the industries, where prisoners were in the largest amount. As these areas also happened to be with the high population of free African Americans, the tendency towards exacerbation of the southern association of the worst forms of non-agricultural work flourished greatly (Lichtenstein, 1996).

Additionally, it is important to understand that a complex system of coercion and compulsions undermined people’s entrance into this lease system. For example, a definition of vagrancy gave good grounds to imprison the thousands of ex-slaves who, after the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment, ran away from the plantations and looked for shelter in the countryside, trying to secure some land or paid work in the cities.

Today’s Prison Labor

By 2009 prison labor has been reorganized both as a disciplinary component, as well as the way of financing it. The re-institutionalization of the prison labor began with the vow of the chairman of the United States Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, to stop the economic crisis that had caused steep declines in profitability, resulting from the Great Depression times, and exercised a monetary shock to damage the inflationary spiral. The increase in the inmate population only grew more after the end of World War II. While the correctional-industrial complex has gained the fame of one of the most capitalized sectors of the economy of the nation, a number of drawbacks are obvious. For instance, it did not prove to be effective at prisoners’ rehabilitation; it did not lower the crime rates and, frankly speaking, it does not bear any relationship to crime rates at all; its introduction coincided with the largest escalation of violence among young men in the whole American history, despite the fact that the complex was supposed to fight the expansion of the crime rate; and it pursued such imprisonment patterns, which reveal strong racist practices (Chang, 2002).

In the frames of these changes, the revitalization of inmate labor has become a part of a much broader strategy to impose the forms of social discipline and labor. With the beginning of the Volcker Shock in 1979, members of Parliament adopted the Federal Prison Industries Enhancement (PIE) Act, which enabled private corporations to stick together joint ventures and state prisons for the first time in history since 1935. The same year the Percy Amendment legalized the possible sale of convict-produced PIE goods on any public market if they correspond to the required standard. With the help of the PIE program, states have subsidized production for a couple of the largest corporations in America.

In 1983, federal inmates were required to work forty full hours per week, and most of these jobs obtained the shape of facility support (food, repairs, laundry, and maintenance) on the contrary to the situation several decades ago. In such a way, current federal prison labor aimed at reduction of prison operation costs. Nowadays, one out of each twenty-one federal convicts works for the Federal Prison Industries, Inc. (FPI) (also well-known as UNICOR), which produce goods that are exported abroad or sold to governmental agencies.

In 1995, Alabama re-introduced the chain gang, a way of legal punishment, which was outlawed for over fifty years due to the critique across the whole nation of the constant exploitation, degradation, and brutalization associated with chain gangs following and during the convict lease system. Iowa, Arizona, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Florida followed this suit, while members of Parliament introduced certain state bills, which offered chain gang requirements in Tennessee, Vermont, Montana, Indiana, Washington, South Carolina, and California. Five states adopted statutes that required prisoners to spend a part of the sentence laboring on chain gangs, and introduced measures (for example, bright pink t-shirts) to make sure that this work was both humiliating and highly visible (Lafer, 2003).

As prison labor has always been central to the exercising of social relations with the help of which more unfree types of capitalist labor have reigned over the society, the crucial changes in the neoliberal relations of social reproduction and production, the recovery of prison labor has become a coercive addition to the lower class of the labor market. As economic and social policies have been reorganized to foster dependence on the increasingly insecure wage labor market, penal policies and survival laws have been reorganized to criminalize a row of punishable behaviors (for example, sleeping on park benches, panhandling, or loitering), as well as to execute greater penalties as a result of securing a safe livelihood beyond the borders of the marketplace (particularly, the illegal drugs sales).

Because of the prevalence of the mandatory sentencing laws, convicts often have to confront such sentences that are totally disproportionate to the cruelty of committed criminalized behaviors. Moreover, prisons have been constantly run as highly profitable institutions, with multiple cases of corruption, when judges are paid to put innocent people to private prisons.

To execute the proper treatment of the prisoners and to secure them from being exploited in a harsh way, in 1935 the Ashurst-Sumners Act was adopted, which assured it to be a federal offense to receive, possess, sell, or use goods made by the convicts from another state. Despite the fact that the law strengthened the restrictions of the Hawes-Cooper Act, protectionist unions and businesses were not satisfied as they wanted the states to prohibit such type of commerce at all. In 1940, the Sumners-Ashurst Act reinforced its positions and called it a federal crime to transport inmate-made goods on purpose, regardless of the laws in other states.

The Walsh-Healy Act of 1936 prohibited inmate labor on contracts of federal procurement; and the Executive Order 11755 that was adopted on the first of January, 1973, considerably limited the purchase of convict-produced goods also by the federal government (Brackett, 2007).

In the present day situation, state and federal officials as well as all private prison reformative groups have spent a couple of years trying to find effective ways to increase the number of free-willing prisoners who work. Such a renewed interest in prison labor comes from extreme increases in the convicts’ population, the forgotten belief that prisons can actually change its inmates and a business community of the United States is no longer afraid of the possible competition from labor products, produced by cheap labor force from multiple prisons. However, progress in this direction has been very slow due to the PIE program's multiple constraints and due to the fact that increasing work opportunities for inmates do not have a high priority with both private businessmen and government officials. 

Continuing to research on the problem, California voters discarded $450 million investment for the construction of another prison but approved an alteration in the constitution of the state to permit operation of private prison industries if the governor can assure that the jobs would not lead to the layoffs of civilian employees in 1990.

In 1994 voters from Oregon increasingly approved an amendment to the constitution to allow 100 percent of convicts to work. Besides, many states are in favor of private-sector jobs for inmates; however this transition takes a lot of time to be implemented in life. The leading state, which privately employs a lot of convicts, is South Carolina. The legislature has revoked the state prohibition on paying the inmates and gave the authority to the Department of Criminal Justice to contact with local governments, private enterprise, and state agencies for the application of convicts’ labor, however, only 134 inmates have been employed there (Chang, 2002). 

John Sharp, the state comptroller in Texas, has proposed a goal to employ 6,000 convicts from Texas in joint ventures by 2000. However, most of the set goals for such private employment of inmates are very modest. For instance, at the yearly meeting of the American Correctional Association, which took place in Memphis, 1996, the officials from the prison industry expressed a great hope that 3,000 inmates would be offered some jobs in the PIE program across the country by 2000. However, this goal was not reached (Chung, 2002).

It is important to note that today such great organizations for providing prisoners with some jobs as UNICOR help inmates have an occupation, which brings profits to the whole economy of the country as well as mitigating the sentence of the convicts.

UNICOR is totally self-sustaining in the economic sense and needs no funding from the government. This corporation possesses 109 factories in various federal prisons, which produce over 175 various types of services and products, such as textiles, clothing, electronics, vehicular and fleet management components, recycling activities, and office furniture. Among services, encoding and data entry can be highlighted.

The help, which UNICOR gives to the convicts, is huge. For example, in the fiscal year of 2008, the corporation employed about 21,836 prisoners: seventeen percent of them were held in the federal prisons. At that year, the company obtained $854.3 million in selling produced goods. Eighty percent of this revenue went to the purchase of equipment and raw materials, whereas sixteen percent were used to pay the salaries to the staff. The remaining four percent were given to inmates as their fairly earned salaries (Chung, 2002).

Pros and Cons of Prison Labor

Nonetheless the fact that prison labor has a wide range of negative sides, the advantages of it are more prominent. However, the disadvantages should not be avoided. Subjecting the criminals to prison labor gave an opportunity to understand that while trying to secure one’s livelihood beyond the borders of the increasingly unstable labor market will only lead to an even more coercive and punitive forms of waged labor. Further compulsion to work, parole and probation regulations of many states only prove that former prisoners, who have no stable employment, may be incarcerated again. Prison labor is definitely a great tool for raising the economic state for the whole country, however, the inability to discern a real criminal from a safe citizen in our times makes prison labor unfair and only proves how useful it can be to have as many convicts as possible in order to secure cheap working force for someone’s private factory.

In the same way the convict lease system aggressively ingrained a social order that was totally based on white supremacy into the money economy of post-emancipation, as well as the industrial prison contract system, which turned human bodies into the types of factory labor that were essential for building industrial capitalist system of the innovative kind, together with vital changes in the labor organization during the contemporary period, the government has opened its prisons to the needs of industry again, claiming it to be a part of a strategy to impose labor discipline necessary to establish an effective order in the country.

Importantly, while prison labor has been warranted to be an efficient mechanism to increase the market value of convicts’ labor power, there is the proof that imprisonment has actually acted to reintegrate this layer of the population back with the labor market on even more unequal and unfree conditions. Former prisoners are now among those, who are to undergo some of the worst discrimination in the labor market, getting much lower income than other inmates with similar past (Lafer, 2003).

However, the devil is not as black as it is painted, and obviously the times of slavery and rude convicts’ manual work exploitation are far behind. The Hawes-Cooper Act, which was released in January, 1929, mandated that all goods that were produced by the prisoners of one state were to be subject to the laws that existed in the state where these goods are exported to. This law was abolished in 1978; however, it proved once again that the majority of people consider work to be a great punishment for those who commit crimes. Labor was accepted as a constituent part of the re-education of the convicts, which with very low or even no expenses at all, brought a lot of profits to the country, therefore, showing its effectiveness (Fabrice, 2010).

On the other hand, the labor was very hard, and the treatment quite inhumane. Nowadays, the labor of convicts can still bring a lot of profits to the society but only if exercised in the proper way with provision of good conditions and fair treatment of the convicts. The times of severe cruelty and force work are far behind in past and should not be returned. If so, prison labor is very positive for both the society and a prisoner, giving him/her an opportunity to understand well whether he or she chose the right path in life for themselves, and to re-consider their values if they want to start a new life.

Prison labor definitely has its advantages but only in case of being applied humanely. Unfortunately, the American society as well as any other society in the world cannot treat equally those, who once hurt their friends, family, co-workers, who robbed them or even killed them. In the country of high democracy people demand fair treatment and state that everyone has to pay for its wrong-doings. Therefore, these days there is a tendency that in many prisons murderers, robbers, rapists, and other violent criminals are located, however, the growing majority of the convicts are simply innocent or not completely guilty and they appeared to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now they have to work for rich businessmen in their private corporations for nothing but re-education and development of social awareness, which they lose seeing such an unfair treatment resulted in extremely cheap prison labor as well as inhumane work in the factories under the strong slogan “For the sake of American economy”.


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