Rattling the Bars: US Prison Labor
On this Episode of Rattling the Bars, TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway interviews Asatar Bair Assistant Professor of Economics at Riverside City College about prisons and the ownership of a person’s labor power vs. the ownership of a person
EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN: Welcome to Rattling the Bars. I’m Eddie Conway and today we’re discussing prison slavery in U.S. prisons.
Recently I interviewed Asatar Bair. He is an Assistant Professor at Riverside City College and also the author of Prison Labor in the United States: An Economic Analysis. I started off the interview by asking him what made him decide to focus on prison labor.
ASATAR BAIR: Well I started this research in the 1990’s. That was a time when the prison population had just gone through this enormous expansion and a lot of people were concerned about it. There was a lot of activism around it and I became interested in it for that reason and when I started to look into it, it seemed like a lot of people were making the charge and saying prison labor’s slavery.
What I found is that the argument was never systematically developed because I think as is often the case, when you’re making an argument to people who already sort of agree with you. Like prison activists would say this is an outrage, basically right.
This is slavery. But they wouldn’t really carefully define what makes something slavery or not. And those questions I think are important because there’s a morality attached to it. If we say well slavery is wrong, then we need to know what would make it not slavery. What would we need to change? And that’s tied into the reasoning of why you say it is.
So to me it’s like you had to have that clear before you could really make meaningful changes. Unless you just wanted to say this is wrong and it’s not right. Which there’s some value in that. I think that was probably the focus of a lot of activists at the time is just to bring it to the attention of people that this is going on.
CONWAY: How did you conduct your research?
BAIR: I was given tours and shown around the prison and I was very interested in seeing the workshops, the factories, the fields, any area that production took place that they’d be willing to show me. I looked at–if I had a chance I would talk to inmates. I would ask them questions. What did they think and feel about it? I just tried to at that time take in as much impressions of what was going on as I could and then in some cases there was somebody from the Department of Corrections or an entity set up by the Department of Corrections that oversees prison labor. And sometimes they were very interested in cooperating with me.
They were very–they were interested in sort of boosting their program and sometimes I would ask for data and they would give it to me. And that’s really what determines–Florida was very willing to share data. So that’s one of the reasons that I included that as part of the study. I couldn’t get that for every single state. So I had to kind of use what I could get. But I figured by doing a close analysis in one or two areas, I could kind of provide an example of the categorizations that I was making.
CONWAY: This is the first Marxist analysis of prison economy. Can you explain the significance of class to your study?
BAIR: The concept of class in Marxism, it has a long history. There’s many people working in the Marxist tradition who have defined class in different ways. And some of these definitions go back long before Marx. So the idea that classes are composed of rich versus poor or the powerful versus the powerless. Or sometimes in terms of culture elite, those who have influence versus those who don’t. What was unique to Marxist is that Marx pioneered the concept of surplus value.
So class in Marx’s unique typology was concerned with the production appropriation of surplus value. That is different from all these other forms. So you know the questions that come up when you use class in its surplus value formulation is well who is producing and who’s appropriating? So that’s a question that I’m at pains to answer in book. And then the next thing that comes up is under what conditions? What is the social and political and economic forces that make up the context of that production that create the relationship between the producer and the appropriator that allow this to happen?
So there’s a unique constellation of forces that [however you read the book] produces slavery in prisons. And just since there’s a lot of different definitions of slavery out there, I call it the slave fundamental class process. So that’s sort of signal I’m using this surplus value definition and this is following in the training that I received from Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff who are my research advisors in graduate school.
CONWAY: What is the slave fundamental class process and how is it different from other forms of slavery?
BAIR: Well, Marxism focuses on a labor process. So it’s not about your identity exactly. It’s about the process of performing labor. And the question is what kind of relationships exist in the labor process at the point of production. From that perspective then I created a definition of slavery I called, it’s like a thin definition, what is the slave [inaud.].
So I say look, it requires the ownership of a person’s labor power. So I don’t definite it as the ownership of a person, but rather the ownership of their ability to perform work. And this fits with what we know about prisons because in prison the person of the inmate is not owned. There’s no market for example. You can’t buy and sell inmates. But their ability to perform work, that’s their labor power, that’s clearly owned. It’s as [legal] as a definition under the 13th amendment. So very strong constitutional basis in law says no one shall be enslaved except as punishment for a crime.
So it’s legal to compel somebody to work, to basically to own their labor power is legal under the constitution. Highest law of the land. And we also accept it culturally and socially. So we reaffirm that ownership of labor power and by basically saying it is right, it is just, we accept it. Now I think that might be change. It’s like a lot of things about prison, we accept a view that is not very well informed. The more we look at it, then the less we might accept it. It’s a lot of hidden aspects about prison life.
So the other thing that I see as key to this is that the reproduction on labor power, that is the what is necessary for an individual to continue to be able to perform labor. You know we need certain things right? Food, clothing, shelter, and then we have so much of social needs that are overlaid on top of that. And in slavery and slave fundamental class process, that reproduction of labor power is the responsibility of the slave master.
So that’s different from other forms. Like capitalist fundamental class process. The worker is paid a wage. Nobody provides you with what you need to live, right? That’s your responsibility. So we would say the reproduction of labor power is outside the preview of that relationship, the producer and the appropriator.
CONWAY: Estimate how many people are engaged in prison slavery. Some people say it’s 85,000. Others say it’s up to a million.
BAIR: So my numbers are that 36% of inmates are enslaved. Most of that is about 27% are in the non-commodity production, what I call prison household production. So cooking meals, cleaning, doing maintenance, and so on inside the prison. Producing valuable items but these items are not bought and sold. So that’s what I mean by they’re not commodities. That’s 27%. Any [other 90%] are producing commodities. So 36% of about 2 million inmates would lead me to say there’s probably on the order of 720,000 to 750,000 or more in that range who are enslaved.
CONWAY: What are some of the factors that have reduced commodity production inside prisons from 1885 to 2001?
BAIR: Yea that’s a good question. Being enslaved in the past, so going back to the mid to late 19th century, early 20th century the rate was close to 100%. So every inmate basically worked unless there was some kind of medical reason not to. Even then there were very brutal prisons where inmates worked even if they were very sick and infirm and often perished as a result. But over time there were basically 2 forces that reduced the extent of prison commodity production. One was labor unions.
Labor unions did not like that they were in competition with inmates. And the other one was outside capitalist firms who said well production in prisons has an unfair advantage because you’re using labor that you can compel and there’s plenty of evidence that says the standard of living was much lower in prisons. So that would, in Marxist language that would be to say there’s a different value of labor power. Because the value of labor power right, this is like I mentioned earlier, this is what is necessary biologically but also socially in order for a person to continue to labor. So it’s the food clothing shelter that’s the biological part.
But there’s also an additional amount which we add socially. Like that when we think about well where do you sleep? We have different standards just for bedding than somebody might have had 200 years ago. So society’s notion of what is necessary has evolved along with technology and our ideas about how a person should live. So with inmates we have the idea that they should live substantially worse than everybody else. So outside companies are basically making this argument, you have an unfair advantage over us. So they lobbied to reduce the opportunities of prisons to sell their commodities.
So one act said that the federal government will not buy commodities produced by state prisons. But they can still buy federally produced commodities. That’s a limitation of the market. Other states and jurisdictions passed similar things so the opportunities for prison production sort of got narrower and narrower and it reduced the rate of enslavement over time. That’s not due to the prison itself. That’s due to outside forces impinging on that. We know that prisons have been run with very close to 100% enslavement in the past.
It produced a very violent and brutal kind of form of slavery. And some of these prisons were economically self-sufficient and some of them were more than self-sufficient. Like they returned big revenues to the state. So not only were they able to pay all the cost of the prison, they were able to do more than that which they actually turned over to the state. So there were actual revenue generators for the state and that changed as fewer and fewer inmates were enslaved and society got the idea that they deserve a better standard of living in prisons.
Now this is in the early to mid-20th century some of this stuff was coming to light just how brutal the conditions were. And people said you know this is wrong. We need to do more for inmates. So those two forces saying they deserve to have a greater standard of living and fewer of them were working, changed the cost and revenue picture for prisons. And it led to a situation where there were fewer and fewer inmates enslaved.
Now to me that doesn’t affect the argument. That doesn’t affect the argument as to whether or not what happens in prisons can be called slavery. The percentages are aside from that. Like I said those are determined by other structural forces. They don’t have to do with the relationship between the producer and the appropriator and that, like I argued, that’s what we call slavery.
CONWAY: How do you view prison economy today given the fact that all facets of state welfare to prisons have been privatized?
BAIR: I think this is also where to some extent I differ with some of the activists on this because to me it’s not really the key question, whether you’re being exploited by the state or by a state agency or by a corporation. To me the key question is what is that labor process like? What is the experience? How does it shape you? And I argued what is that difference between those different forms.
Yea there’s a different appropriator but the relationship is basically the same. It’s slavery. So I don’t see how it’s the most salient thing to say oh I’m so happy that I’m being enslaved by private corporations instead of by the government. I don’t see how that’s an important distinction. To me the important distinction is the class distinction. What kind of class process are we experiencing?
CONWAY: Some have suggested that outside firms refuse to use prison labor because there’s too many barriers involved. What do you think about that?
BAIR: I think that there is a inconvenience factor for outside firms coming into prisons. There might be interruptions. There might be a lockdown or other things. So that’s a factor. That’s true. But what we’ve seen is that there’s tremendous financial advantages to be had as well. That I analyze this in the book that basically every inmate receives huge amount of state welfare they get their food clothing, shelter, etc. whether or not they work.
I call that welfare in the book. They get this stuff so that they have a certain level of welfare. Not as a reward for employment or not. So that the reward for employment which I call a monetary payment which comes from the slave master, can be very, very low. As a result, there can be a tremendous benefit to the employer and that’s something that each employer is going to weigh. Like there might be some interruptions. That’s possible.
On the other hand, the payments are much, much lower. What we know anecdotally about inmates is that the best inmate workers work with incredible levels of focus and that some of them are much better than outside workers. This is just from my observations from conversations with appropriators in different areas. So I don’t think it’s generalizable to say capitalist do not want to use prison labor. I think there’s good reasons why they might. And in general they’re interested in it as a way of cutting cost. And the other big factor is to be able to say this was made in the USA. It’s only part of their story and that there’s a lot of good reasons why capitalist would want to use prison labor.
CONWAY: What do you think some of the solutions to the crisis of prison slavery?
BAIR: I think one thing that would help is to change the legal conditions. So we have this idea like I said constitutional amendment, it’s the 13th amendment that says basically enslavement is okay as long as somebody’s being punished for a crime. I’d like to see that repudiated. I don’t think that fits with our current understanding, our current morality. I think that’s a holdover from an earlier era. I think our ideas have changed and that amendment doesn’t really reflect that. The idea that somebody should be punished with enslavement. I just don’t think that there’s a majority behind that idea. So that’s one thing.
The other thing is we want to distinguish between inmates working vs. inmates being enslaved. I think work is a very important aspect of human development and that it’s cruel to deprive people of work and that’s part of what happens in prison is that because the employment opportunities, lets forgets about the class process for the moment and just say the employment opportunities, the abilities of inmates to work has been really curtailed. And so inmates receive a lot of rest and not a lot of opportunity for productive work.
I would like to see that change. But people have a kind of a simple minded view of this. Inmates either work more or they work less. To me that’s not enough. I want to know what are the conditions under which they work. What is the deal? In particular, Marxism gives us this unique lens to look at it like who appropriates the surplus? How does that work? We have this model that emerges from the tradition too that says we want to see that the appropriation of surplus being done by the workers themselves.
So the person who produces is also the person who takes the product and makes decisions about what happens to it. Now nobody gets to keep the entire product of their labor. There’s always different payments that have to go out. But the question is who controls that process? Does the worker, whether it’s an inmate or anyone, maybe it’s a worker outside prisons, does that worker have a voice in terms of deciding what happens to the fruits of their own labor?
I would like to see prison labor modified so there is labor that takes that form. What is called the communal class process rather than the slave class process. A lot of things about prison life would have to change in order for us to have this social and political and economic forces converge so that we have the understanding that that’s how we ought to be organized in prisons. One aspect of it certainly is that inmates could get together and say we’re not just going to accept this anymore. Inmates are doing just that on September 9th and I think that’s a very positive development. It’s hard for people to unify behind any idea and it’s hard to unify behind a principle that’s bigger than one’s self. But this is how things move forward.
CONWAY: Thank you for joining Rattling the Bars. We are following the plight of prisoners across the country and in a few days there will be a nationwide strike on September the 9th and we’ll be following that and reporting back to you on that.
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