Locking Down an American Workforce

Published on ZNet (Source: TomDispatch.com), by Steve Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman, April 20, 2012.

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.

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 … //

… 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.

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 Southern system also stood out for the intimate collusion among industrial, commercial, and agricultural enterprises and every level of Southern law enforcement as well as the judicial system. Sheriffs, local justices of the peace, state police, judges, and state governments conspired to keep the convict-lease business humming. Indeed, local law officers depended on the leasing system for a substantial part of their income. (They pocketed the fines and fees associated with the “convictions,” a repayable sum that would be added on to the amount of time at “hard labor” demanded of the prisoner.)

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:

All of this was only different in degree from prevailing practices everywhere else: the sale of prison labor power to private interests, corporal punishment, and the absence of all rights including civil liberties, the vote, and the right to protest or organize against terrible conditions.

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.

The Kansas Wagon Company, for example, signed a five-year contract in 1877 that prevented the state from raising the rental price of labor or renting to other employers. The company also got an option to renew the lease for 10 more years, while the government was obliged to pay for new machinery, larger workshops, a power supply, and even the building of a switching track that connected to the trunk line of the Pacific Railway and so ensured that the product could be moved effectively to market.

Penal institutions all over the country became auxiliary arms of capitalist industry and commerce. Two-thirds of all prisoners worked for private enterprise.

Today, strikingly enough, government is again providing subsidies and tax incentives as well as facilities, utilities, and free space for corporations making use of this same category of abjectly dependent labor.

The New Abolitionism: … (full long text).


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