Prisoners are often excluded from discussions about labor rights in America. There can be no doubt that prisoners participate in the capitalist economy in a way similar to other workers, but are victims of some of its starkest inequalities. Prisons are also steadily becoming workhouses for goods made by some of the largest corporations in the world. This privatization as well as the racialized aspect of mass incarceration make it crucial that any discussion of labor under capitalism should also include a discussion of prison labor. 

The Corporate Accountability Lab lists three kinds of labor that are performed in prison: 1) in-house prison labor, or labor done by inmates to keep the mechanisms of the prison running; 2) work-release, where inmates provide labor to private companies off-site; and 3) prison industries, making goods for external sale. All of this labor contributes to surplus value for either the state or private industries. Marxist economists define surplus value to be the amount of value that is created in excess of the cost of the raw materials and the cost of paying workers; This value is stolen from the workers and redistributed to the employers. Since prisoners usually work for wages well below market averages, or for free, this surplus value is typically very high. 

The predatory nature of prisons

The recent surge in labor performed in prison has led to more people laboring in captivity than were enslaved 200 years ago. The surplus value that is created by the labor of prisoners takes a system that theoretically exists to protect society and turns it into one that steals the work of individuals and lowers the market value of all labor. 

“The prison is a predatory structure that is supposed to provide a common good,” Dr. Joy James told The Real News Network. James is the Ebenezer Fitch Professor of Humanities at Williams College and  studies incarceration and rebellion against the police. “I feel comfortable saying that this is evil and I don’t care about the discussion of nuances of work because it is an evil that needs to be abolished.”

Proponents of capitalism often point to its success at removing unpaid or “slave” labor from the market economy. However, while the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishes slavery in America, it leaves a loophole for incarcerated individuals. “Slavery becomes marginalized [in America] but it does not disappear,” explains Dr. Asatar Bair, an assistant professor of economics at Riverside City College and the author of the book “Prison Labor in the United States: An Economic Analysis.” In an interview with The Real News Network, Bair said that he believes that a key part of how this “slavery” was allowed to continue was the creation of the category of “the criminal” and the subsequent dehumanization of that category. 

For several decades after the Civil War, Southern states used a particularly aggressive form of incarceration called convict leasing, where private contractors would “lease” prisoners in order to work in their farms or industries. While slaves were considered property and were taken care of like one would an asset, prisoners used under convict leasing were considered disposable. If one prisoner died, they would merely be replaced with another. This led to a higher mortality rate for prisoners in the convict leasing programs than that of enslaved people. 

“People of African descent, formerly enslaved, are literally worked to death, because they are now the joint property of the state itself and corporations coming down from the North,” said James. “You don’t have to keep the workforce alive because if one dies you can get another.”

Convict leasing eventually became unpopular with both labor and business interests in the United States because of this disposability. Businesses were unable to compete and labor objected to the use of a free workforce. Therefore, this form of work in prisons was mainly abolished by the restriction of markets in the 1920s and 1930s. Prison labor was prohibited from selling products across state lines by the Ashurst-Sumners Act of 1935, and most prison labor for the next few decades was used in service of prisons themselves, or of other state agencies. In addition, private corporations were generally excluded from operating within prisons. This market restriction led to a reduction of the number of prisoners operating within formal labor markets.

Criminalization over justice

However, in the late 1960s and 1970s, the government increased its criminalization of dissent in America, which caused the skyrocketing of incarceration rates. Richard Nixon started his war on drugs, which was first used to crack down on Black activists. This led into the Reagan administration increasing the penalties for the possession of crack cocaine and other narcotics. Then in 1994, the Clinton Crime bill, championed by Joe Biden, resulted in the largest increase of incarcerated people in the history of the United States. 

“We are substituting incarceration for punishments that had before not involved that, or even criminalizing entirely new things,” said Bair. “All of the incentives [in the system] are towards incarceration. At the prosecution level, the district attorneys, the police, everyone has an interest here in locking someone up, not in justice per se.” 

James argues that it is impossible to not also tie this surge of mass incarceration to the crackdown on Black activism. “1970 Nixon has to put down or eviscerate the political meaning of human rights… so he criminalizes dissent,” said James. “Black activists in the cities we will identify as junkies [so he] proposes the war against drugs. But it wasn’t a war against drugs, it was a war against dissent.”

During this surge in mass incarceration, state and federal governments also started loosening the restrictions set in the 1920s and 1930s on private corporations using prison labor through the Private Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP), which was authorized by Congress in 1979. This program. which allows private industries to form partnerships with prisons to use inmate labor, is supposed to follow certain requirements, including paying a prevailing wage. However, wages under the PIECP program have been reported to be as low as 0.16 cents a day. 

Over 4100 corporations use the PIECP program to profit from prison labor made available by mass incarceration. 385 of these are publicly traded, and include companies such as 3M, ACE Hardware, Amazon, Microsoft and Northrop Grumman. But Bair isn’t sure if the inclusion of private companies really changes the injustice of the system. “Does it matter if the state or if a corporation is exploiting you?” he asked. 

Labor without alternatives

Bair points out that while under capitalism, labor both inside and outside the prison is exploitative, wherein the workers produce surplus value that they do not receive in return for their labor, there are special circumstances wherein the labor done within prisons is particularly alienating. The extremely coercive nature of prisons means that much of the work that is required is not really voluntary, since it is tied to things such as early release. “This is an environment of complete coercion. I mean any choice that is made in that setting is affected by its extremely coercive nature. To say that inmates choose something, I mean, what is their alternative?” he asks. 

James agrees. “This is not dignified labor, this is coerced labor,” she said. “It’s around prisons that you see the starkest expression of extraction, and not just extraction for accumulation, but extraction for the sake of extraction.” 

Both James and Bair believe that the way to fight against this coerced extraction is to focus on the humanity of prisoners and to destigmatize the “criminal.” Bair sees a short-term solution (short of abolition) to turn prisons into true sites of rehabilitation, and not punishment or warehousing. “We need to reaffirm the humanity of those behind bars and attack the discourse that says these are criminals,” he said. “People who are incarcerated are not a different kind of person; Anyone could be in this situation depending on what happens. We need to rehumanize them.”

James further believes that in order to restore humanity to prisoners, you have to legitimize political dissent, especially against racial capitalism. “You have to rehumanize the incarcerated, and progressives tend to say focus on their suffering, that’s going to humanize them. I say that is absolutely right, but you also have to focus on their agency. But there is no way to reconstitute the human without legitimizing political dissent,” said James. “There is no way you can reconstruct the criminal… when police and civilians can kill with impunity just as long as the people are seen as disposable.”