The Labor of Doing Time

Julie Browne

Slavery is being practiced by the system under the color of law.... Slavery 400 years ago, slavery today; it's the same thing, but with a new name. They're making millions and millions of dollars enslaving blacks, poor whites, and others--people who don't even know they're being railroaded.

--Political Prisoner Ruchell Magee [1]

Despite a chilling official silence, 1995 was a bombshell in the "war on crime." In this one year alone, 150 new prisons were built in the United States and 171 existing prisons were expanded. This was the year the crime bill was passed, mandating that 100,000 additional police officers be added to the already enormous law enforcement establishment. In California, this was the first year that the state budget allocated more money for prisons than higher education. Most astonishingly, with one short day of media attention, 1995 was the year that Alabama's governor Fob James, and other state officials, made the callous and horrifying decision to reinstate the nationally abolished chain gang.

The return of chain gangs, as well as the return of convict leasing, in the last decade, comes on the back of extensive state-run prison industries and convict labor programs. As the prison population has continued to grow, convict productive labor and employment has developed into one of the largest growth industries. The significance of this movement toward mass incarceration must be seen in a historical context. It is crucial to understand that, though incarceration has been normalized as society's natural response to crime, there was not always a prison system in this country. Examining how the prison system was developed and how it operates today, it is clear that this form of social control has been deeply linked to the institutionalization of racism, working-class oppression, and labor exploitation.


The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution reads:
"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." [2]
Before the abolition of slavery there was no real prison system in the United States. Punishment for crime consisted of physical torture referred to as corporal or capital punishment. The first penitentiaries were designed in England and France in response to growing criticism of the extreme use of public violence as the only means of deterring crime. In Their Sisters' Keepers, Estelle Freedman explains that the basis of the penitentiary was that the detention itself was the punishment, and the "penitentiary ideal consisted of extreme isolation of criminals from society, extensive supervision over their daily lives, and compulsory productive labor." [3]

One of the first penitentiaries in the United States was opened in Auburn, New York. With a structure combining separated confinement with silent collective work, this penitentiary became the model for most prisons in the United States. A few years after this first prison was opened in Auburn, New York in 1817, a local citizen was given a contract to operate a factory within the prison. [4] In these initial penitentiaries the state used convict labor for government production and contracts were given to certain private businesses to operate within the prisons. Prisoners were also leased out to private bidders to be housed, fed, and worked as slaves, which was referred to as the Convict Leasing System. Initially, inmate labor was purported to assist in the discipline and redemption of criminals; however, the potential net profit from convict labor was the driving force of the popularity of the Auburn system throughout the South.

Historian Fletcher M. Green wrote that by the 1840s, "the development of prosperous prison industries was the most earnest concern of the wardens in all state prisons, and the penitentiary that was the least expensive was considered the most successful." [5]

After the Civil War, the 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery for all people except those convicted of a crime. Legally allowing any such individual to be subjected to slavery and involuntary servitude opened the door for mass criminalization: a social mechanism designed to bar the liberty and equality that was the promise of emancipation from slavery. When African Americans were no longer legally held as slaves or property, there was a tremendous increase in the number of African-American convicts. Before the Civil War, laws called the Slave Codes governed the rights of slaves and all African Americans in the South. When slavery was legally abolished, the Slave Codes were rewritten as the Black Codes, a series of laws criminalizing legal activity for African Americans. Through the enforcement of these laws, acts such as standing in one area of town or walking at night, for example, became the criminal acts of "loitering" or "breaking curfew" for which African Americans were imprisoned. In the late 19th-century South, an extensive prison system was developed in the interest of maintaining the power, race, and economic relationships of slavery.

Convict Leasing

The convict lease system functioned with the Black Codes to reestablish and maintain the race relationships of slavery by returning the control over the lives of these African Americans to white plantation owners. This is illustrated by the fact that in 1878, Georgia leased out 1,239 convicts, 1,124 of whom were African Americans. [6] Through the convict lease system, bidders paid an average $25,000 a year to the state, in exchange for control over the lives of all of the convicts. [7] The system provided revenue for the state and the profit of unwaged, unprotected workers for plantation owners or private industries. Racial and economic motivations were far more central than public safety and rehabilitation.

From the beginning there was criticism of the cruelty and brutality in the convict lease system. Journalists, community members, ministers, dockers, and union organizers worked to draw attention to the experiences of state prisoners. Women, such as Rebecca Felton in Georgia and Julia Tutwiler in Alabama, organized demonstrations and "crusades" targeting specific camps or politicians. Finally in the 1890s, legislative reports were issued describing the brutal daily beatings, often with leather straps studded with wooden shoe pegs, inflicted on the workers in these camps. [8] The rise in prison reform organizing in the 1930s also brought attention to some of the experiences of female convicts.

One investigative committee in Tennessee found that women were being made to work in a hosiery mill, and were often flogged, hung by their wrists, or placed in solitary confinement as punishment for poor productivity at the work site. [9] In the face of these demonstrations and public reports, politicians could no longer ignore the descriptions of African Americans being beaten with whips so heavy that if they survived, their wounds were never able to heal. Mississippi was the first southern state to abolish the convict lease system, with a constitutional amendment enacted in 1894 prohibiting the lease of convicts, "to any persons or corporations, public or private." In Tennessee, years of strikes involving convicts and union workers together forced the government to abolish the lease system. By the 1930s every state had abolished convict leasing. [10]

Chain Gangs

As the southern states began to phase out convict leasing, prisoners were increasingly made to work in the most brutal form of convict forced labor in the United States, the chain gang. The chain gangs originated as a part of the mass organization at the turn of the century to create extensive quality roads. In the 1890s, Good Roads Associations were developed in each of the southern states and they established a statutory labor system, wherein every able-bodied road hand in the state was required to work for four or five days a year on public roads and highways. [11] In North Carolina and Georgia, politicians realized that the use of forced convict labor in road work was more economically efficient than using compulsory free labor, because convicts could be worked harder, for longer hours, and over a more sustained period of time. Georgian politicians and prison officials began releasing male misdemeanor convicts into road work programs. Georgia was the first state to begin to use the chain gang system to work male felony convicts outside of the prison walls. The chains were wrapped around the prisoners' ankles, shackling five prisoners together while they worked, ate, and slept. Chain gangs became very economically and politically popular among most Southern politicians as they witnessed convicts working from sunup to sundown in Georgia. [12]

The fundamental "reform" in abolishing convict leasing and replacing this system with chain gangs was that the state now owned the convicts and their labor. Whereas previously the bureaucracy of the state had been the supplier of convict labor for private industries, they now became the direct exploiters. For over 30 years, African-American, and some white, convicts in the chain gangs were worked at gunpoint under whips and chains in a public spectacle of clear chattel slavery and torture. Eventually, the brutality and violence associated with chain gang labor in the United States gained worldwide attention. As reformists learned about the endless stories of prisoners dying in sweat boxes after being beaten by the guards, and of teenage boys being whipped to death, they began organizing and calling for an end to the use of extreme violence against convicts. Historian and theorist, Walter Wilson, was particularly critical of the ideology behind these movements, since they focused only on the most outward displays of violence. In 1933, Wilson wrote of this reform movement:

When some of the inhumane tortures that constantly occur on the gangs are forced into the light, reformers and liberal apologists for capitalism are "shocked" and call for an investigation. The investigation usually whitewashes the prison system as a whole by pinning the blame on one or two subordinate guards who are then dismissed. The reformers then go into ecstasy over their "victory." [13]
Cases involving the dismissal of certain guards were hailed as the "abolition of whipping," until the next horrifying story of torture was released. Reformers failed to address the fundamental problem of violent domination, control, and isolation forming the basis of the penitentiary system from which the chain gangs had emerged. They failed to realize that there could be no benevolent form of a chain gang. Consequently this system of overt slavery persisted through all the minor reforms. The chain gang was finally abolished in every state by the l950s, almost 100 years after the end of the Civil War. [14]

Current Convict Labor Programs

In the 1990s, the California Department of Corrections (CDoC) maintains that convict labor is only a peripheral program within the larger system confinement and punishment of convicts. However, the Prison Industry Authority (PIA) is a multi-million dollar industry that is dependent on the productivity of California prisoners. As inmates are classified for placement in an institution, they are surveyed for almost 50 different work skills, from appliance repair to x-ray technician, to determine which institution they should be placed in. [15] Clearly, the experience and work skills these convicts already have coming into the institution counter the notion that convict labor programs are about job training and education.

The Department of Corrections maintains that work in the institution is voluntary; however, each day worked reduces a prisoner's sentence by one day. [16] Therefore, those who refuse to work will serve twice as long a sentence as the convicts who agree to work. In addition, the "Work/Privilege Group" classification process further punishes prisoners who refuse to work. There are four work/privilege classifications for prisoners: A = full time work, B = half-time work/waiting list, C = refuses to work, D = special segregation unit prisoners. The prisoners who refuse to work, labeled as Group C, are "not entitled to family visits, and are limited to one-fourth of the maximum monthly canteen draw. Telephone calls are permitted only on an emergency basis as determined by the institution's staff. While access to the yard is allowed, no special packages or access to other recreational or entertainment activities are allowed." [17] These extreme coercive tactics contradict the claim that labor is voluntary.

The Prison Industry Authority

In California, prisoners have been manufacturing goods for state agencies since the turn of the century. In 1944, the Prison Reorganization Act created the California Correctional Industries Program to oversee all prison manufacturing programs. In the 1980s this office was transformed into the Prison Industry Authority. Through these industries the inmates have produced all of the work that supports the prison system, such as making the clothes, washing the clothes, and building the cell equipment, day room furniture, lockers, and mess hall tables. Prisoners have made shoes, bedding, clothing, detergents, stationery products, license plates, and furniture for all state agencies. In addition, convict laborers have provided "special services" such as dental lab work, micro graphics, and printing. The women's prison industries have generally been in the areas of reupholstery, fabric production, laundry, and data entry. In men's prisons all of this work is done, as well as metal production, wood production, and the operation of farms, dairies, and slaughterhouses. [18] This enormous, multi-million dollar industry was purportedly created to address the problem of "inmate idleness," according to the CDoC, by helping in rehabilitation, building effective work habits, and providing job training. Yet a prisoner who spends her 10-year sentence processing stationery products on an assembly line or washing laundry has not learned any highly employable skill, nor been mentally and emotionally challenged through this service to the state.

By 1982, when the California Correctional Industry was transformed into the Prison Industry Authority, the issue of inmate rehabilitation wasn't even included in the industry's statement of purpose. The legislature created the PIA so that the industries run within California prisons would be economically independent and self-supporting, "allowing it to function outside the normal State budgetary process." Given the rising cost of imprisonment and the increasing tax burden, the PIA had been "vested with the powers and responsibilities characteristic of a private corporation," placing profit at the center of the organization of production. [19] The current mission statement of the PIA is:

  1. Producing and selling, at a profit, quality goods and services at competitive prices with timely delivery.
  2. Maintaining a safe, clean, secure, and efficient environment that promotes work ethic.
  3. Expanding markets and developing new products. [20]

There is nothing in this mission statement that indicates any commitment to training or rehabilitation. The PIA mission statement focuses on the profiteering interests of an industry that can rely on a stable, growing, exploitable population of workers who are prohibited from organizing on their own behalf.

Conservation Camps

In addition to the industries operating within California prisons, convicts have worked in that state's fire control and forest conservation in the Conservation Camp system since 1915. The CDoC now operates 33 male Conservation Camps and 3 female conservation camps, providing "the backbone of the state's wild land fire fighting crews." The prisoners work for the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Los Angeles County Fire Department. [21] Since it is low-security imprisonment, the Camps program is considered a privilege by many prisoners, though the work is extremely dangerous and many prisoners are injured in the program. And, of course, the prisoners are still denied the right to organize collectively. The average prisoner working in the conservation camps is paid 25 to 75 cents an hour. The Department of Corrections considers the program a tremendous success, because the Department of Forestry saves over $70 million annually using convict labor. [22]

The Joint Ventures Program

The Joint Venture Program of the California Department of Corrections is the board responsible for contracting out convict labor to "any public entity, nonprofit or for profit entity, organization, or business." [23] This program was created by the passage of Proposition 139, the Inmate Labor Initiative of 1990, which was an initiative to overturn the 1882 abolition of convict leasing in California. A poll conducted by the San Francisco Chronicle found that less than 25 percent of the electorate was aware of Proposition 139 less than one month before the election. [24] However, when voters read the ballot description, a majority passed this initiative allowing private business to profit from convict laborers. Work that had been done on the outside is now done by convicts who are paid 20 percent of minimum wage, worked under constant armed supervision, unable to legally unionize, and unprotected by the Fair Labor-Standards Act.

One of the most important aspects of Proposition 139 is its repeal of the principle that labor in prison must be voluntary:

The people of the state of California find and declare that inmates who are confined in state prison or county jails should work as hard as taxpayers for their upkeep, and that those inmates may be required to perform work and services. [25]
The initiative mandates that prisoners be made to work to pay for their imprisonment, and reintroduces private industry into the prison to benefit from this unprotected labor. By June of 1994, 13 corporations were operating in California prisons, including a computerized telephone message center for Tower Communications in the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, green waste recycling for Western Waste Industries in the California Institute for Men in Chino, and electronic component manufacturing for Quality Manufacturing Solutions, Inc. in the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla.[26]

Within the current processes of economic globalization, the establishment of the Joint Venture Program has opened California prisoners to be used as a new labor supply and to be manipulated within the world economy to meet the interests of transnational corporations. Within the global economy, the United States is becoming an increasingly service-based economy, and many of the manufacturing and textile jobs prisoners are supposedly being trained for don't even exist here anymore. Economic globalization has completely altered the relationship between capital and labor that existed within the economy of this capitalist nation-state, where massive increases in incarceration directed at working-class communities and communities of color would formerly have interfered with the interest of many corporations by diminishing the labor pool. The hypermobility of capital has created an economic setting that allows for mass incarceration, because there is no longer a strong economic need for a large, free, unskilled, unemployed population of workers in this country. [27] Capital can easily expand its supply of labor to include any exploitable population of workers throughout the world, including incarcerated workers.

The New Chain Gang

Since the first chain gangs were sent to work in Alabama in 1995, several other states have responded positively to the idea, and Arizona has already begun modeling the program in their own prisons. The chain gang system in Alabama not only forces prisoners to work to pay for their own imprisonment, but also establishes convict labor as a form of punishment. The 400 medium-security convicts on the chain gang, often convicted of theft or bouncing checks, are assigned to work for a 30-day period. If they receive negative reports during these 30 days, they can be assigned another 30 days. There is no limit to the amount of time a convict can be forced to remain on the chain gang if he is perceived to be disobeying the rules, regulations, or "the orders of the staff."[28] Beyond the terror of working at gunpoint for twelve hours a day, performing hard labor while constantly chained to five other men, the chain gang system in Alabama grants an extremely dangerous excess of power to the guards who can, at their own discretion, extend the duration of the prisoners' punishment.

Several prisoners have voiced protest to the return of this horrific practice. Michael Lamar Powell, a convict in Limestone Correctional Facility in Capshaw, Alabama, has been particularly aggressive in writing public statements to expose the injustices of imprisonment in Alabama and across the United States. This recent essay, "Modern Slavery: American Style," addressed the significance of the return of chain gangs in Alabama and the lack of any real criticism in the international response.

Alabama is now proving the past is not always past. Alabama has become the first state in the nation to re-institute chain gangs. However, the worst part about chain gangs in Alabama is not the young men chained together in groups of five as they urinate and defecate… not the cuts and bruises that the chains inevitably leave on the legs and ankles of the young men... the inadequate or total lack of medical treatment... the total lack of access to the courts... nor the dehumanization of these young men in chains and their abrupt return to the slavery of their ancestors. The worst part of the chain gang in Alabama is that the rest of the world rushed to see it.

...The rest of the world is jealous. They too want their own slaves. So they wait and watch so that they can do it too, so they can do it with less problems. America, the last country to outlaw slavery, now becomes the country to teach the rest of the world to enslave legally. [29]

On May 4, 1995, the papers were flooded with pictures of prisoners working in chains. The pictures were romanticized and nostalgic in such a compelling way that Life magazine followed up this one-day photo opportunity with a photo essay on the chain gangs. The first line read, "The chains are strangely beautiful." [30] As Michael Lamar Powell wrote, the mainstream media response was not criticism and outrage, but rather surprise and interest. [As the result of a class action lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, claiming that chain gangs are cruel and unusual punishment, in June 1996, Alabama abandoned the practice of chaining inmate work crews together.--E.R.]


Despite the current unbelievable repression of prisoners rights, many prisoners like Michael Lamar Powell continue to write and voice dissent and resistance to the exploitation of labor in the prison system. When given the opportunity to organize, there have been many prison strikes where prisoners withheld their labor to force the prison officials to meet their demands. In the 1970s, when many nationalist revolutionaries such as the Black Panthers and Young Lords became political prisoners, convicts were able to successfully organize the Folsom State strike and the Attica uprising, which included specific demands to empower convicts as workers, and call attention to the exploitation taking place. Today, prisoners continue to resist, and organize solidarity. Bill Dunne, a political prisoner in Leavenworth, Kansas spent several months in segregation for stamping the receipts for the cabinets he was packaging with "SLAVE LABOR IN THIS PRODUCT." I'm sure that actions similar to those taken by Bill Dunne are taking place throughout the convict labor enterprises.


The exploitation, inhumanity, and injustice in the convict lease system and the chain gangs need to be brought back into public consciousness; however, the movements that emerge in resistance to these systems must not model the same pattern that has unfolded throughout the history of prison reform. We must break out of the notion that we are trapped by some proverbial pendulum, and that lives will simply be sacrificed and oppressed in the necessary conservative turn of our political process. Throughout U.S. history, social movements have abolished different systems of brutality and exploitation only to have them return in a short time. We must admit that gradual changes within a system cannot be effective if the larger system itself is the problem. Chain gangs and convict leasing are not a brutal aberration within a just and humane criminal justice system; they are an extension of the racist and class-biased systematic exploitation of convict labor that has formed the basis of the U.S. prison system since its inception. There will never be a benevolent form of imprisonment. The reform that we have a responsibility to demand is the abolition of the prison itself.


  1. [back] Ruchell Magee, in an interview with Kiilu Nyasha, "Freedom is a Constant Struggle," KPFA Radio, August 12, 1995.
  2. [back] U.S. Constitution, Amendment 13 (ratified December 6, 1865).
  3. [back] Estelle B. Freedman, Their Sisters' Keepers, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), 1981, p. 8.
  4. [back] Fletcher M. Green, "Some Aspects of the Convict Lease System in the Southern States," Essays in Southern History, vol. 31, (Durham: University of North Carolina Press), 1949, p. 112.
  5. [back] Green, p. 115.
  6. [back] Green, p. 120.
  7. [back] Green, pp. 116-118; Walter Wilson, Forced Labor in the United States, (New York: AMS Press, Inc.), 1933, p. 63.
  8. [back] Green, p. 121.
  9. [back] Wilson, p. 62.
  10. [back] Green, pp. 121-123.
  11. [back] Alexander Lichtenstein, "Good Roads and Chain Gangs in the Progressive South: "The Negro Convict is a Slave," The Journal of Southern History, (Athens, GA: Southern Historical Association), 1993, p. 87.
  12. [back] Lichtenstein, pp. 88-98.
  13. [back] Wilson, p. 68.
  14. [back] "Free Labor Rebelled Against It," Solidarity, United Auto Workers, March 1995.
  15. [back] Prison Law Office, The California State Prisoners Handbook, Section 3.17, pp. 79-80.
  16. [back] The California State Prisoners Handbook, Section 3.17, pp. 115-118.
  17. [back] The California State Prisoners Handbook, Section 3.17, pp. 83-84.
  18. [back] Prison Industry Authority, "Inmate Employment in Existing Enterprises," June 30, 1992.
  19. [back] Prison Industry Authority, "Over 140 Years of History."
  20. [back] Prison Industry Authority, "Mission Statement," Annual Report Fiscal Years 1991-1992.
  21. [back] California Department of Corrections, "The Conservation Camps Program," unpublished description of the program.
  22. [back] "The Conservation Camps Program."
  23. [back] California Department of Corrections, Joint Venture Program.
  24. [back] David Tuller, "Prop. 139 Raises Debate on Employment of Prisoners," San Francisco Chronicle, October 31, 1990.
  25. [back] California Department of Corrections, "Proposition 139," Joint Venture Program.
  26. [back] California Department of Corrections, "Joint Venture Employers," Joint Venture Program, June 1994.
  27. [back] For further reading on economic globalization and the hypermobility of capital, see David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, and the writing of Saskia Sassen.
  28. [back] Alabama Department of Corrections, "Chain Gang Orientation," Dormitory 31.
  29. [back] Michael Lamar Powell, Modern Slavery: American Style, 1995, p. 4.
  30. [back] Brad Darrach, "Chain Gangs," Life, October 1995, p. 65.

This article was written as a senior thesis at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1995. First published in Criminal Injustice: Confronting the Prison Crisis, by the Prison Activist Resource Center.

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