When one thinks of prison labor, images of criminals in striped jumpsuits chained together at the ankles along a Southern highway come to mind. The readings from this week, Alex Lichtenstein’s Twice the Work of Free Labor and selections from Herivel and Wright’s Prison Nation, focused on the history of prison labor and examined how the government as well as private corporations are still profiting off the work of criminals. It was surprising to find that the “prison-industrial complex” of today’s penal system is not a uniquely new concept. Lichtenstein’s work focused on the tradition of leased convict labor in the New South after the Civil War and the progression into the use chain gangs. While chain gangs are no longer used today, prison labor is still a great source of profit for the government and private industries as well as “compensation” for prisoners. The appeal of prisoners as a cheap, low-maintenance, constant labor source has remained constant throughout the last century.
In Twice the Work of Free Labor, Lichtenstein provides a study of the convict lease labor system in the South that existed before the 1920s. More specifically, the work focuses on the convict lease system in Georgia from Reconstruction until the Great Depression. As soon as the Civil War was over, the South was faced with restructuring their communities physically, politically, economically, and racially. A transition was occurring between the Old and New South. The convict lease system implemented by southern prisons is an example of an institution that bridged this gap. This system emerged after the passage of the 13th Amendment which freed slaves but permitted involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime. For nearly a century in the South, punishment and rehabilitation took a back seat to exploited labor. The convicts, who were overwhelmingly African American, were “farmed out” to the highest bidder and forced to work for the remainder of their sentence or the rest of their life. They performed jobs such as building railroads, mining coal, making brick, cutting down trees, and paving roads. Punishment in the post- Civil War South was influenced by a changing society and played a key role in evolving race relations, the exploitation of labor, and the growing capitalist economy of the New South. This system was not exclusive to the South – convicts were also used as a forced labor source in the North, and state systems of penal labor often contracted prison labor out to private entrepreneurs. However, only in the South did the state give up total control of the prisoners to contractors. The physical “penitentiary” became synonymous with this form of contracted labor. Some argue that the convict lease system served as a mechanism to maintain white supremacy after emancipation. Lichtenstein points out that this system was seen as “a fiscally conservative means of coping with a new burden: the ex-slaves who were emancipated from the dominion of the slaveholder only to be subject to the authority of the state…it stood as a system of forced labor in an age of emancipation” ( p. 3). Convict lease labor bridges the gap between the Old and the New South. This is one of the key elements to understand evolving race relations in the New South. The New South’s economic development and use of regional resources made possible by convict labor also helped to maintain racial domination of whites. During the Progressive Era, the convict lease labor system was replaced by public chain gangs. Like its predecessor, chain gangs satisfied the need for a low-wage labor market in order to modernize the South and extract its natural resources. Both the convict lease labor system as well as public chain gangs developed due to the unique nature of the New South – an underdeveloped region rich in natural resources in need of a cheap labor source in order to achieve a modernized, industrial economy.
It seems ironic to think of the convict lease labor system of the New South as an archaic institution. The thought of using coerced prison labor as a means for the highest bidding private investors to profit seems reminiscent of slavery. I refer to the regard of this institution as ironically archaic because to some extent, it is still thriving today. In 1984, the private prison industry reappeared on the United States penal scene. In the sections entitled “Making a Buck Off the Prisoner’s Back” and “The Private Prison Industry”, Herivel and Wright compile writings that demonstrate the continuity of the coerced convict labor of the New South and the privatized prison industry of today. Many private corporations are profiting off of the prison industry as well as the use of prison labor. It seems reasonable to want to use prison labor; prisoners provide a cheap, reliable work force. While the private prison industry can be seen as a result of a healthy, capitalist society, we must remember that “the purpose of private prison companies is to make money for their owners”, as Paul Wright points out (p. 137). The morality of any industry that makes a profit off of the imprisonment of two million people should be called into question. After researching the convict lease labor system and chain gangs of the postbellum South, the motives and dangers of the modern-day prison-industrial complex and the use of prison labor are easier to understand. The continuity between these two systems proves that over the past century, the American penal system has been more focused on making a profit rather than rehabilitating criminals.