The Labor Politics of Prisons

Today is Labor Day, a federal holiday in the United States designed to promote a sanitized history of labor organizing. As Charles Johnson puts it, “the federal holiday known as Labor Day is actually a Gilded Age bait-and-switch from 1894. It was crafted and promoted in an effort to throw a bone to labor while erasing the radicalism implicit in May Day (a holiday declared by workers, in honor of the campaign for the eight hour day and in memory of the Haymarket martyrs). As a low-calorie substitute for workers’ struggle to come into their own, we get a celebration of labor … so long as it rigidly adheres to the AFL-line orthodoxy of collective bargaining, appeasement, and power to the union bosses and government bureaucrats.”

On this occasion, I’d like to discuss the relationship between prisons and labor. There are many facets to this relationship, from the use of prisons to enforce work discipline, to prisons as sites of slave labor, to the role of police and corrections officers unions in pushing for increasingly coercive criminal justice policies.

Prisons and Work Discipline

Prisons have been used to enforce work discipline for centuries. In his book The Enterprise of Law, Bruce Benson explains how England transitioned from customary law to authoritarian law controlled by the state. He notes that prisons were first used in England primarily in order to control the poor and force them to work:

“Houses of correction” were first established under Elizabeth to punish and reform able-bodied poor who refused to work. A “widespread concern for the habits and behavior of the poor” is often cited as the reason for the poor laws regarding vagrancy and the establishment of facilities to “reform” the idle poor by confining them and forcing them to work at hard labor. But Chambliss reported that “there is little question but that these statutes were designed for one express purpose: to force laborers (whether personally free or unfree) to accept employment at a low wage in order to insure the landowner an adequate supply of labor at a price he could afford to pay.” Such laws clearly reflected the transfer function of government.

In this case, prisons were used as institutions of violent coercion meant to establish work discipline, enforce the work ethic, drive down wages, and thus transfer wealth from poor and working people to landowners.

The Slavery Connection

Slavery did not experience a clean and straightforward end in the United States. Rather than prohibiting slavery universally, the 13th Amendment prohibited slavery “except as punishment for a crime.” In the South, this was followed by the passage of the Black Codes, which criminalized a litany of innocuous actions specifically for blacks.  So rather than abolishing slavery, the 13th Amendment simply changed its form.  This created forced labor that was arguably worse than chattel slavery. As Angela Davis explains in her book Are Prisons Obsolete?:

Slave owners may have been concerned for the survival of individual slaves, who, after all, represented significant investments. Convicts, on the other hand, were leased not as individuals, but as a group, and they could be worked literally to death without affecting the profitability of a convict crew.

This convict lease system was truly appalling, and allowed for the enslavement of former slaves under similarly brutal and racialized conditions to the ones they had supposedly been emancipated from. While prison labor is no longer as brutal as it was under the convict lease system, it still persists.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola, is literally a converted slave plantation where inmates are forced to toil in the fields. Companies like Walmart, AT&T, and Starbucks all profit from prison labor. So do war profiteers like BAE, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing. The racism of slavery persists; according to the Sentencing Project, 60% of prisoners are people of color, with 1 in 3 black men experiencing imprisonment in their lifetime. America incarcerates on a mass scale, with more than 2.4 million people imprisoned. The abolitionist movement has some unfinished business here.

Prisoners have their rights violated repeatedly, and that’s true with respect to their labor as much as anything else. While most labor unions either ignore this or simply focus on how competition from prison labor drives down wages outside prisons, the Industrial Workers of the World seeks to organize in solidarity with striking prisoners.

Marginalization from the Labor Market

James Kilgore argues that the main labor problem entailed in imprisonment today is not slavery inside, but marginalization outside the prison. Kilgore points to a litany of ways marginalization from the labor market intersects with incarceration. First, he notes how it fuels incarceration, writing “The chief labor concerns about mass incarceration are linked to broader inequalities in the economy as a whole, particularly the lack of employment for poor youth of color and the proliferation of low wage jobs with no benefits.”

Kilgore then notes the numerous ways that those who have been incarcerated are marginalized from the labor market. He explains:

People with a felony conviction carry a stigma, a brand often accompanied by exclusion from the labor market. Michelle Alexander calls “felon” the new “N” word. Indeed in the job world, those of us with felony convictions face a number of unique barriers. The most well-known is “the box”-that question on employment applications which asks about criminal background. Eleven states and more than 40 cities and counties have outlawed the box on employment applications. Supporters of “ban the box” argue that questions about previous convictions amount to a form of racial discrimination since such a disproportionate number of those with felony convictions are African-American and Latino. Advancing these Ban the Box campaigns will have a far more important impact on incarcerated people as workers than pressing for higher wages for those under contract to big companies inside.

However, even without the box, the rights of the formerly incarcerated in the labor market remain heavily restricted. Many professions, trades and service occupations which require certification, bar or limit the accreditation of people with felony convictions. For example, a study by the Mayor of Chicago’s office found that of 98 Illinois state statutes regarding professional licensing, 57 contained restrictions for applicants with a criminal history, impacting over 65 professions and occupations. In some instances, even people applying for licenses to become barbers or cosmetologists face legal impediments.

So here we see criminalization producing a stigma that excludes people from employment in many careers, both due to the judgement of employers and the exclusionary nature of occupational licensing laws. The IWW’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee has condemned these forms of exclusion.

Furthermore, Kilgore notes that “the very conditions of parole often create obstacles to employment. Many states require that an employer of a person on parole agree that the workplace premises can be searched at any time without prior warning-hardly an attractive proposition for any business.  In addition, tens of thousands of people on parole are subject to house arrest with electronic monitors.  All movement outside the house must be pre-approved by their parole agent. This makes changes in work schedule or jobs that involve travel an enormous challenge.” In It’s About Time: America’s Imprisonment Binge, criminologists James Austin and John Irwin note that these parole policies lock ex-convicts out of legitimate employment and thus make them more likely to reoffend, not less. 

Immigration Detention and Exploiting Migrant Workers

One of the largest segments of imprisonment in the United States today is immigration detention. Immigrants are locked up in detention centers without charges, trials, or often even access to counsel.

Undocumented immigrants outside of detention centers live in constant fear of being caught, imprisoned, and deported. This fear can easily be used by employers in order to intimidate, abuse, and exploit migrant workers.

A recent documentary from Frontline, Rape in the Fields, exposes how immigrant women are vulnerable to rape and sexual abuse on the job, largely because fear of deportation deters them from reporting such abuse.

In addition to making migrant workers vulnerable to violence, abuse, and exploitation, immigration restrictions trap third world workers in poverty. As Bryan Caplan puts it, “Most would-be immigrants are desperately poor, but could easily work their way out of poverty if they were here.” 

The effect of immigration restrictions is bad for immigrant workers and bad for consumers. Not only are workers trapped in poor countries where they can’t earn much, but their production is also restricted accordingly. As Caplan explains, “Immigration laws trap people in countries where workers produce far below their potential.”

So total production decreases dramatically because of these coercive laws that trap people in poverty and leave violators vulnerable to exploitation and violence.

Unions for the Prison State

While most of this post emphasizes how workers are harmed by incarceration, it’s noteworthy that particular workers benefit from and actively lobby for mass incarceration. Corrections guard unions and police unions are concentrated interest groups that benefit directly from criminalizing the public, expanding prison populations, and expanding the state’s violent powers. These groups engage in persistent rent seeking, lobbying for authoritarian policies. In a sense, imprisonment is a mechanism of plunder, by which these concentrated groups of workers benefit at the expense of most other workers. The prison state means enslavement, exploitation, marginalization, and structural poverty for workers around the globe, but for guards and police it means being given extraordinary power and extracting rents through the state.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory