Sweatshop labor is back with a vengeance. It ranges across broad stretches of the American economy and around the world. Penitentiaries have become a niche market for such work. Prison privatizers—the Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, and G4S Secure Solutions (formerly Wackenhut)—sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM. These companies can, in most states, lease factories in prisons or lease prisoners to work on the outside. Incarcerated men and women make office furniture; work in call centers; fabricate body armor; take hotel reservations; manufacture textiles, shoes, clothing, dental aides, and metal equipment; and work in slaughter houses, getting paid somewhere between ninety-three cents and $4.73 per day.
Rarely could you find workers so pliable, easy to control, stripped of political rights, subject to martial discipline . . . unless you traveled back in time to the nineteenth century, when convict labor was commonplace throughout the nation. Indeed, a sentence of "confinement at hard labor" comprised the core of the penal system.
Penal servitude may strike us as a barbaric throwback to pre-modern medievalism. But on the contrary, from its first appearance in this country, and still today, it has been associated with modern capitalist industry and large-scale agriculture. And that is only one of several misconceptions about this peculiar institution. Infamous for the brutality with which prison laborers were once treated, indelibly inscribed in popular memory with images of the black chain gang in the South, most assume it was a Southern inspiration. But penal servitude—the leasing out of prisoners, in effect the sale of their labor power by government to private [End Page 94] enterprise, either within prison walls or in outside workshops, factories, and fields—was originally known as a "Yankee invention." First installed at Auburn prison in New York in the 1820s, the system spread widely and quickly throughout the North, the Midwest, and later the West. It developed alongside state-run prison workshops which produced goods for the public sector and sometimes the open market. A few Southern states also used it. Prisoners there, as elsewhere, were mainly white men since the slave masters had a free hand to deal with the "infractions" of their chattel. The reason the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, made an exception for penal servitude is precisely because it had long since become the dominant form of punishment throughout the free states.
Before the Civil War, prisoners were employed at an enormous range of tasks, from rope- and wagon-making to carpet, hat, and clothing manufacturing (where female prisoners were sometimes put to work), as well as coal mining, carpentry, barrel-making, shoe production, and house-building; even rifles were made by felons. After the war, the convict-lease system metamorphosed. In the South, it became ubiquitous, one of several methods—including the black codes, debt peonage, the crop-lien system, lifetime labor contracts, and vigilante terror—used to control and fix in place the newly emancipated slave. It might be assumed that the convict-lease system was the brainchild of the "Redeemer" governments that overthrew the Radical Republican regimes that ran the defeated Confederacy during Reconstruction. That was sometimes, but not always, the case. In Georgia, for instance, the Radical Republican state government took the initiative soon after the war ended. And this was because the convict-lease system, no matter where in Dixie it was introduced and by whom, was tied to the modernizing sectors of the post-bellum economy.
So convicts were leased to major coal mining, iron forging, steel-making and railroad companies, including Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company (TCI), a major producer all over the South. More than a quarter of the coal coming out of the rich fields outside Birmingham, Alabama was mined by prisoners. By the turn of the century, many major national coal and iron corporations relied heavily on prison laborers. So, too, did all the main extractive industries of the South. Turpentine and lumber camps deep in the fetid swamps and forest vastness of Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana worked their convicts till they dropped dead of...