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The Prison Industrial Complex: A Growth Industry in a Shrinking Economy
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The Prison Industrial Complex:
A Growth Industry in a Shrinking Economy

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An inmate in the Prison Industries Authority Fabrics program works on an American flag at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, California, April 5, 2012.

© Lea Suzuki/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis

[End Page 38]

As tough as life was for American workers at the close of the twentieth century, the dawn of the twenty-first century has proven even more challenging. Despite official claims of recovery, polls show that, for the great majority of Americans, the economy is broken.1

By March of 2012, not only was the unemployment rate for American workers still 8.4 percent, but for some segments of the U.S. working class, namely young African-Americans, it was a catastrophic 40.5 percent.2 The situation for organized labor was equally dire. The union membership rate in the United States had been 20.1 percent in 1983, with unions representing 17.7 million workers; by 2011, that rate had fallen to 11.8 percent and only 14.8 million were still in a union.3 Without a doubt the American labor movement is facing a serious crisis.

Yet there is another crisis fraying the economic and social fabric of America's poor and working-class communities—one that labor leaders have largely ignored. There is a serious carceral crisis in the U.S.—one created by several decades of tough-on-crime policies that ultimately ensnared more than 7.1 million Americans in the nation's criminal justice system and led to the actual imprisonment of a staggering 2.3 million of them for record lengths of time.4 Importantly, this crisis, too, is responsible for record job losses, increased unemployment, and the impoverishment of several generations of children.

Indeed, the carceral crisis and the crisis facing today's labor movement are intimately connected. As much as anti-union laws, weak health and safety enforcement, and the exporting of jobs to low-wage countries have undercut the American labor movement over the last forty years, corporate success at growing [End Page 39] prisons and accessing their enormous captive labor force has also proven highly detrimental to poor and working-class Americans. It is time for the American labor movement to care about the carceral state.

Paving the Way for Prison Labor

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, American workers well understood that companies would do whatever they could to drive down the price of labor. Indeed, for decades after the Civil War, workers—from North to South—watched in dismay as business owners, time and again, succeeded in passing anti-union laws, breaking strikes, and, most alarmingly, in keeping labor costs low by bypassing free-world laborers altogether in favor of convict leasees.5 Their activism, however, eventually led to the passage of several powerful laws that made prisoner labor far less easy to access as well as less profitable to utilize.

In the wake of New Deal legislation such as the Hawes-Cooper Act, the Ashurst-Sumners Act, and the Walsh-Healey Act—which prohibited the sale of prison labor goods to any entity other than state-owned institutions and outlawed the sale of such goods across state lines—and newly empowered by the Wagner Act, the American labor movement began to thrive. Thereafter, American workers and the unions that represented them lost interest in what was happening vis-à-vis the politics of crime and punishment in this nation. Importantly, however, companies did not. Indeed, they had never abandoned their desire to access cheap labor and so, while the labor movement was paying little attention, companies eventually mobilized to re-access the cheapest labor supply of all: America's prisoners.

By the 1960s, and as Lyndon Johnson was launching the country's "war on crime" with his Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), politicians and businessmen began discussing how to link work and imprisonment in newly productive ways.6 What initially were conceived of as job training programs in the nation's ever-expanding penal system soon became experiments in "Free Venture"—new collaborations between the public and private...