Prisoners as cheap labor

Quite likely you thought massive prison populations used as cheap labor were some sort of medieval tradition. Nope. Here’s an article that debunks that misconception and informs you about many other things I (and perhaps you) didn’t know about prisoners as cheap labor.

Locking Down an American Workforce Steve Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman wrote for TomDispatch 19 April 2012, Prison Labor as the Past — and Future — of American “Free-Market” Capitalism,

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.

So where and when did it come from?

As it happens, penal servitude — the leasing out of prisoners to private enterprise, either within prison walls or in outside workshops, factories, and fields — was originally known as a “Yankee invention.”

First used at Auburn prison in New York State in the 1820s, the system spread widely and quickly throughout the North, the Midwest, and later the West. It developed alongside state-run prison workshops that produced goods for the public sector and sometimes the open market.

A few Southern states also used it. Prisoners there, as elsewhere, however, were mainly white men, since slave masters, with a free hand to deal with the “infractions” of their chattel, had little need for prison. The Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery would, in fact, make an exception for penal servitude precisely because it had become the dominant form of punishment throughout the free states.

In case you’ve never read it or have forgotten, here is the Thirteenth Amendment (emphasis added):

Section 1. 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.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Got a population you don’t like? Make up some laws and convict them. Need some cheap labor? Make up some laws and convict some people; anybody will do, but poor people are easiest to convict. Or, as Georgia just tried to do, ship ’em in from another state.

Yes, but surely that cheap labor must have been just for chain gangs. Nope:

Prisoners were employed at an enormous range of tasks from rope- and wagon-making to carpet, hat, and clothing manufacturing (where women prisoners were sometimes put to work), as well coal mining, carpentry, barrel-making, shoe production, house-building, and even the manufacture of rifles. The range of petty and larger workshops into which the felons were integrated made up the heart of the new American economy.

Yes, but in Georgia it was solely the New Jim Crow, right? Nope, Jim Crow was an influence, and so was Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, but it started before all that. And in Georgia it was restarted by the northern-supported Reconstruction state government before Jim Crow:

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.

Convict leases like the Lowndes County Commission leases from Valdosta State Prison. Because they’re so cheap! Nevermind there are plenty of local people who need jobs.

Are we really that desperate for “modernization”? For any sort of “industry”? Hey, how about we open a nuclear waste dump! I hear Japan has some nuclear waste it wants to get rid of! Let’s send some prisoners over there to collect it!

No? There are some things we won’t do? How about we add locking up lots of people for cheap labor to that list.

How about instead we persuade Georgia Power to get out of the way so we can sell solar power to Atlanta and points north?