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 US 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 ninety-three 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.