Back to the future: convict labor returns to America (a powerful tool to force down wages and crush unions)

Summary: Another chapter in an ongoing series about this horrific symptom of America’s decay, both operational and moral.  Most of us don’t see it.  Rot, as in a home, usually remains hidden in the early stages (when it’s easy to treat).  Only in the advanced stages does it become obvious, when treatment is expensive and painful.  At the end are links to previous chapters, and to other articles about this important topic.


Creating a Prison-Corporate Complex

“Prison Labor as the Past — and Future — of American ‘Free-Market’ Capitalism”
by Steve Fraser and Joshua Freeman
TomDispatch, 19 April 2012
Posted here with their generous permission.

Introduction by Andy Kroll

As cash-starved state governments scrape their way through this so-called recovery, they might as well hang signs with this message on their capitals: “Everything must go.” States are hemorrhaging workers and selling off assets at a startling rate as they grapple with anemic tax revenues and dwindling federal dollars. So dire are the states’ economic woes that, in recent years, they’ve begun offloading a more unusual type of property: prisons.

That’s right — states are so broke they’ve resorted to selling off their correctional facilities (with the prisoners inside) as a way to cut costs and make ends meet. In 2011, for instance, Ohio sold one of its prisons for $73 million to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the country. And make no mistake: CCA and its ilk are eager buyers. As the Huffington Post reported in February, CCA sent a letter to 48 governors offering to buy — not just manage, but acquire entirely — prisons in their states. The company said it had earmarked $250 million for buying and running state-owned prisons as part of a “corrections investment initiative.”

But CCA, to borrow a trope from journalism, buried the “lede” in the governors’ letter. The real head-snapping revelation appeared in the third-to-last paragraph: in exchange for buying a state’s prison, CCA required that the state prison agency ensure that the prison remained at least 90% full. Translation: We’ll buy your prisons and keep ’em orderly and clean, so as long you keep the prisoners coming in.

This is just the latest episode in the decades-long takeover of the prison industry by private interests. Reagan’s “tough on crime” policies, as Michelle Alexander has written, caused spiraling incarceration rates, which in turn spawned a cottage industry of prison management companies looking to make a buck off the influx of inmates. CCA, for instance, has watched revenues grow by 500% in the past two decades.

Another growth industry in our Age of Incarceration is prison labor, putting inmates to work making everything from uniforms to furniture for a few cents an hour. As historians and TomDispatch regulars Steve Fraser and Joshua Freeman explain, prison labor has a long and sordid history that should make us anxious indeed for our own degraded economic moment. Leasing prisoners to companies at wages from hell is a “Yankee invention” dating back almost 200 years that was modern then and, frighteningly enough, couldn’t be more modern today.

From The Brooklyn Paper, 8/19/2010

An excerpt from the article by Fraser and Freeman

Locking Down an American Workforce

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. …

Convict Leasing Rises Again

“Now,” means our second Gilded Age and its aftermath. In these years, the system of leasing out convicts to private enterprise was reborn. This was a perverse triumph for the law of supply and demand in an era infatuated with the charms of the free market. On the supply side, the U.S. holds captive 25% of all the prisoners on the planet: 2.3 million people. It has the highest incarceration rate in the world as well, a figure that began skyrocketing in 1980 as Ronald Reagan became president. As for the demand for labor, since the 1970s American industrial corporations have found it increasingly unprofitable to invest in domestic production. Instead, they have sought out the hundreds of millions of people abroad who are willing to, or can be pressed into, working for far less than American workers.

As a consequence, those back home — disproportionately African-American workers — who found themselves living in economic exile, scrabbling to get by, began showing up in similarly disproportionate numbers in the country’s rapidly expanding prison archipelago. It didn’t take long for corporate America to come to view this as another potential foreign country, full of cheap and subservient labor — and better yet, close by.

What began in the 1970s as an end run around the laws prohibiting convict leasing by private interests has now become an industrial sector in its own right, employing more people than any Fortune 500 corporation and operating in 37 states. And here’s the ultimate irony: our ancestors found convict labor obnoxious in part because it seemed to prefigure a new and more universal form of enslavement. Could its rebirth foreshadow a future ever more unnervingly like those past nightmares?

Today, we are being reassured by the president, the mainstream media, and economic experts that the Great Recession is over, that we are in “recovery” even though most of the recovering patients haven’t actually noticed significant improvement in their condition. For those announcing its arrival, “recovery” means that the mega-banks are no longer on the brink of bankruptcy, the stock market has made up lost ground, corporate profits are improving, and notoriously unreliable employment numbers have improved by several tenths of a percent.

What accounts for that peculiarly narrow view of recovery, however, is that the general costs of doing business are falling off a cliff as the economy eats itself alive. The recovery being celebrated owes thanks to local, state, and Federal austerity budgets, the starving of the social welfare system and public services, rampant anti-union campaigns in the public and private sector, the spread of sweatshop labor, the coercion of desperate unemployed or underemployed workers to accept lower wages, part-time work, and temporary work, as well as the relinquishing of healthcare benefits and a financially secure retirement — in short, to surrender the hope that is supposed to come with the American franchise.

Such a recovery, resting on the stripping away of the hard won material and cultural achievements of the past century, suggests a new world in which the prison-labor archipelago could indeed become a vast gulag of the downwardly mobile.

About the authors

Steve Fraser is Editor-at-Large of New Labor Forum, co-founder of the American Empire Project (Metropolitan Books), and a TomDispatch regular. He is, most recently, the author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace. He teaches history at Columbia University.

Joshua B. Freeman, a TomDispatch regular, teaches history at Queens College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is affiliated with its Joseph S. Murphy Labor Institute. His forthcoming book, American Empire, will be the final volume of the Penguin History of the United States.

For more information about the US criminal justice system

(a) Other articles about convict labor

  1. Start here: graphs on the website of The November Coalition. A visual and quantitative display of shameful numbers.
  2. Prisoners Help Build Patriot Missiles“, Noah Shachtman, Wired, 8 March 2011 — “some of the workers manufacturing parts for Patriot missiles are prisoners, earning as little as $0.23 an hour.
  3. 21st-Century Slaves: How Corporations Exploit Prison Labor“, Rania Khalek, AlterNet, 21 July 2011 — “In the eyes of the corporation, inmate labor is a brilliant strategy in the eternal quest to maximize profit.”
  4. New Exposé Tracks ALEC-Private Prison Industry Effort to Replace Unionized Workers with Prison Labor“, Democracy Now, 5 August 2011 — Video and transcript.
  5. Billions Behind Bars: Inside America’s Prison Industry”, a series on CNBC, October 2011
  6. Prison Labor in US – Unicor, the Hidden Face of Federal Commerce“, JD Journal (by the Employment Research Institute), 16 March 2012
  7. State {GA} sending inmates to work Vidalia onion harvest“, USA Today, 18 April 2012
  8. American Gulag: A Lot More Than License Plates“, Lyric Hughes Hale, Huffington Post, 19 April 2012
  9. Creating a Prison-Corporate Complex“, Steve Fraser and Joshua Freeman, TomDispatch, 19 April 2012 — “Prison Labor as the Past — and Future — of American ‘Free-Market’ Capitalism”
  10. UNICOR is the trade name for Federal Prison Industries, Inc. They offer convict labor to maximize profits for a wide range of industries. See their website.

(b)  Other articles about our prisons

  1. A 25-Year Quagmire: The War on Drugs and Its Impact on American Society“, Marc Mauer and Ryan S. King, The Sentencing Project, September 2007
  2. The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration“, John Schmitt, Kris Warner, and Sarika Gupta, Center for Economic and Policy Research, June 2010
  3. Welcome to Debtors’ Prison, 2011 Edition“, Wall Street Journal, 16 March 2011
  4. The Caging of America – Why do we lock up so many people?“, Adam Gopnik, New Yorker, 30 January 2012

(c)  Other posts about our shameful criminal justice system — other chapters in this series

  1. An opportunity to look in the mirror, to more clearly see America, 10 November 2009 — About our prisons
  2. Nixon declared war on drugs, a major investment of America in itself – but one that’s gone bad, 21 May 2010
  3. The Feds decide who to lock up for life (not just at Guantanamo), another nail in the Constitution’s coffin, 2 June 2010
  4. Being a third world nation is a state of mind, as we will learn (about prison rape), 19 March 2011
  5. Our prisons are a mirror showing the soul of America. It’s not a pretty picture., 28 March 2011
  6. The Collapse of American Criminal Justice System — Excerpts from The Collapse of American Criminal Justiceby William J. Stuntz
  7. More about the collapse of the American Criminal Justice System– Studies and reports about our shameful system.
  8. Final thoughts about the American Criminal Justice System, 21 September 2011
  9. Why should we care about the Supreme Court’s ruling allowing strip & cavity searches of prisoners?, 5 April 2012
  10. Back to the future: convict labor returns to America (a powerful tool to force down wages and crush unions), 23 April 2012
  11. Convict labor returns to America, part 2 – Lucrative for the employers, expensive for us., 24 April 2012
  12. Convict labor, part 3 – We cannot plead ignorance. We do know., 25 April 2012



7 thoughts on “Back to the future: convict labor returns to America (a powerful tool to force down wages and crush unions)”

  1. Ole C G Olesen

    Thanks for the Info !
    Add to above facts that the US ” Gouvernment ” ( WHO ..are THEY ? ) now can imprison anyone they dont like .. without due public process …and You have the fullblown totalitarian state .

    1. Don’t forget the 1984-like surveilance capability now under construction.

      “and You have the fullblown totalitarian state .”

      Not yet. Give us time. The Roman Empire was not built in a day. It took years to destroy the Republic.

  2. Ole C G Olesen

    I sincerely hope for You and the USA that You are right … but am very sceptical … whether what You fight for possible …. and ask myself : WHEN WILL THE AMERICAN PEOPLE WAKE UP ?

    Whatever … I truly admire the Fabius Maximus web-site for its efforts..even if I in between disagree on some issues … But that is normal between FREE people …
    Most important … Never ever bough to tyrany !

  3. Hope you don’t mind, I just shared this article and links with the FB group Committee to Abolish Prison Slavery (CAPS). I remember discussing slavery, and reading the Thirteenth Amendment in Junior High School:

    “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude’. . . ’shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

    I never questioned what those three damn little ‘dot-dot-dots’ were! Later in college I might have seen the exception but didn’t question it, and passively accepted all until the prisoner collective’s study group where we took turns reading amendments from the Constitution. One Brother read the 13th Amendment, and I told the entire group. “Oh, no – that’s not correct! That’s inaccurate, that’s wrong, I know the 13th Amendment, and that’s not what it says! Please read it again!”

    He read again, and there it was again – an EXCEPTION for “…slavery…as a punishment for crime…” With my pale privilege I demanded to immediately see the paperback copy of the Constitution, and they wouldn’t let me.  They had to pass it around so that each of us would read out loud the next Constitutional Amendment. When it came to me, I quickly read the Thirteenth Amendment to myself, then I read whatever the sequenced amendment was mine to read, and passed the book to my left. I couldn’t think about anything else, only the words of the Thirteenth Amendment and that EXCEPTION! That explained it – the what, how, and why we were being treated like slaves. It was/is the authority that made us all slaves! Finally, after all amendments had been read, I jumped up, walked over and asked to borrow the paper-back, and there it was: Thirteenth Amendment:

    “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.”

    Immediately, I realized that this EXCEPTION needed to be capitalized rather than hidden between two commas, or behind “…” I was amazed, it was contagious, and after the study session I immediately recruited five or six enthusiastic collective members to research this exciting new emancipation gem stone with me. Now, approximately 32 years later millions of people across the country share this epiphany. The big problem is that ‘prison slave territory’, similar to the old expansions of chattel slave (or Slavocracy) territory has vastly and rapidly expanded at an alarming arrogant pace. From less than 450,000 prisoners 32 years ago, to more than 2,500,000/7,000,000+ prisoners today (those are official statistics while the true population is much larger). The current cost per prisoner has escalated from approximately $9,000-$14,000 to between $35,000-$85,000 per prisoner per year. Today, we also have more slave territory expansion with for-profit prisons, bogus laws, et al. Like the Slaver (slave catcher) told Huckleberry Finn, “There’s good money in catching runaway slaves”!

  4. Why Nations Fail – The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu (see Amazon)
    has original English Jamestown effort attempted to emulate Spanish model, enslave the local natives and live off their efforts … but natives around Jamestown didn’t have the numbers and/or organization and the colony almost starved the first two years. They then moved on to enslaved British as substitute.

    “Convicts had to perform “compulsory work,” essentially just another name for forced labor, and the guards intended to make money out of it. Initially the convicts had no pay. They were given only food in return for the labor they performed. The guards kept what they produced. But this system, like the ones with which the Virginia Company experimented in Jamestown, did not work very well, because convicts did not have the incentives to work hard or do good work.” (pg 277)

    …. aka just reverting to English charters for Maryland, Virginia, and Carolina

  5. Pingback: Private Prisons « Constant Chaos

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top