April 22, 2012
Penal Products, Inc.

Did you think that all they made behind those walls was license plates? Let Steve Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman disabuse you. An excerpt:

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…

“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?


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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at April 22, 2012 11:43 PM
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One reason for the increasing popularity of convict labor is that manufacturers are then entitled to label their products as Made in USA.

Posted by: JoyfulA on April 23, 2012 7:00 AM

George Orwell and Woody Guthrie both wrote about being down and out and working in inhumane conditions as have many others. Orwell wrote about being homeless in England and having to work for his stay, Guthrie wrote about being picked up for "vagrancy" and staying in jail for a week or two, as he put it, "turning big ones into little ones, working at a rock pile. Martha tells us on her blog that vagrancy is now called, "lodging in public", thus the idea for the name of her blog There were also various ways of forcing workers staying tied to an employer. Down south, after the civil war there were "work contracts" that held a person to one employer for as long as ten years. This was sometimes referred to as peonage. Then the white overseers figured out that it was easier to hold the worker in jail rather than give him the much easier opportunity to leave to go north where there might be work. There were also farms where the wages were paid as in tokens. This system of money was often used to hold a worker to a farm by allowing him credit at a company or farm store. It was set up so one never could leave or else the company or farm owner could have him arrested for debts run up at the company store. Then he might be leased back to the company or farm from the jail by a politicians who might have also owned the farm or the company. Most of us have heard the old song "I owe my soul to the company store". One might as well have been in jail. Before the era of the automobile, this system was easily enforced. I could go on and on, but the point is that things are bad now, but they could get worse. Much worse. Unless we do something about it.

Richard Wolff tells us that Roosevelt was "forced" to go to business owners and get them to ante up or else the trade unions and the socialists and communists might just bring the system down. Wolff says that because there is no such movement today, then we shouldn't expect much change. Unless we force it. I advocate non-violence and I'm too old and creaky to behave otherwise, but I suspect things are going to get worse than that in time. It's just most distressing to realize that it's going to take decades to turn things around so I probably won't live to see a better world than the one I remember from the "good old days" of my not so long ago youth of the 60s and 70s. One thing you can say about the "greatest generation". They knew how bad it could get. And as the oldest of them died off or forgot, we started sliding downhill. Wolff tells us that real wages haven't risen since the 70s. In some ways they have gone down. Try working your way through college now. Back in the "good old days" of the 60s and 70s, it was hard, but not that hard. I don't think it's possible today.

Well, anyway, back to jails. Personally I think the politicians figured out that was an easy way to deal with an excess of labor.

The crazy thing about the current system of jail is that the taxpayers pay 30 grand per year or so per prisoner to keep him in jail. In essence, these days we are paying welfare to the corporations to house, feed and keep their workers in line and pay for the workers supervisors, the jail guards to keep them in line. Personally, I don't think that kind of system is sustainable. But it will last as long as we let it.

Posted by: Buck on April 24, 2012 9:26 PM
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