New Frontiers in State Budget Reform: Putting Incarcerated Prisoners To Work. Also 1879.

Wow. From the New York Times, Enlisting Prison Labor to Close Budget Gaps:

…Prison labor — making license plates, picking up litter — is nothing new, and nearly all states have such programs. But these days, officials are expanding the practice to combat cuts in federal financing and dwindling tax revenue, using prisoners to paint vehicles, clean courthouses, sweep campsites and perform many other services done before the recession by private contractors or government employees….

“There’s special urgency in prisons these days,” said Martin F. Horn, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction. “As state budgets get constricted, the public is looking for ways to offset the cost of imprisonment.”

Although inmate labor is helping budgets in many corners of state government, the savings are the largest in corrections departments themselves, which have cut billions of dollars in recent years and are under constant pressure to reduce the roughly $29,000 a year that it costs to incarcerate the average inmate in the United States.

Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada, introduced a bill last month to require all low-security prisoners to work 50 hours a week. Creating a national prison labor force has been a goal since he went to Congress in 1995, but it makes even more sense in this economy, he said.

“Think about how much it costs to incarcerate someone,” Mr. Ensign said. “Do we want them just sitting in prison, lifting weights, becoming violent and thinking about the next crime? Or do we want them having a little purpose in life and learning a skill?”

Financial experts agree.

“These are nickel-and-dime attempts to cut budgets, but they add up,” said Alan Essig, an expert on state budgets at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. “You save a dollar here, a dollar there, and you keep your government’s functions.”

Technology has made it easier to coordinate. In Hunterdon County, N.J., nonprofit organizations and government agencies can view prisoners’ work schedules online and reserve them for a specific task on a free day. (Coming tasks include cleaning up after a Fire Department fish fry and maintaining a public park.)

“Using inmate labor has created unusual alliances: liberal humanitarian groups that advocate more education and exercise in prisons find themselves supporting proposals from conservative budget hawks to get inmates jobs, often outdoors, where they can learn new skills. Having a job in prison has been linked in studies to decreased violence, improved morale and lowered recidivism — but most effectively, experts say, when the task is purposeful.

A few things.

1. It’s worth noting the libertarian critique that the government creates the problems that it then has to go out and solve. It costs the government a ton to incarcerate people. The experience of incarceration alternates between a dull boredom alleviated by drugs and random violence to graduate-level coursework and networking in criminality. Given that government policy of maximal incarceration has created these problems of huge costs and wasted lives, the government will now set to solve this problem by….cutting costs and giving people a facsimile of an economy to participate in managed by guards for the benefit of business.

It could just incarcerate less people, putting additional weights on aggressive parole, decriminalization of drugs, less emphasis on mandatory sentencing, etc. More evidence comes out month by month about how we are locking up the wrong types of people. But instead of real reform, we take the real problem as the thing to preserve and then go about finding ways to solve the new problems that it creates.

Imagine telling this part of the government that you’ve swallowed a fly. You can imagine them jumping into action, lining up a spider, bird, cat and dog for you to swallow in succession to “solve” the problem. This is why changing the narrative on incarceration, and not just relying on budget mechanisms, is so important.

The rest of this post is all about 1870s prisons and labor markets.   I’ve covered this some time ago, but I’m going to repost it because it is relevant and I have a lot of new readers.


2. There’s a way of understanding the conservative project as one that aims to return the United States to the glory of the 1870s. Prison labor was fairly common back then. One bit of synergy conservatives may want to consider is that waterboarding was a solution to deal with prisoners who didn’t want to do forced industrial work.  From UC Berkley Historian Rebecca M. McLennan’s excellent The Crisis of Imprisonment: Protest, Politics, and the Making of the American Penal State, 1776-1941 (p. 130):

The keeper swiftly administered a massive shock to the victim’s central nervous system by plunging him into a large vat of ice-cold water…in the earliest days of its use, the prison physician reported that the victim was fastened into the stocks, which forced his head back, and then the keeper would “douche” him with ice-cold water….

Such extreme forms of chastisement were not as commonly resorted to as others; they appeared to have been reserved for prisoners who repeatedly, and flat-out, refused to work. One witness of a “bathing” in an Ohio prison noted that the prisoner was held down for some time, then allowed to breathe, and finally asked “whether he will consent to make bolts.”

Similarly, one argument for unions is that it can reduce the numbers of people quitting their jobs, which is good for business, by giving workers a mechanism for having their grievances expressed. You know what else reduces the number of quits? Prison labor! Also from McLennan (p. 111):

Under the conditions of labor scarcity and mobility that characterized Gilded Age economies, the industrialist worked his free laborers harder and longer, and disciplined them more stringently, at his own peril: His workers might simply move on. That dilemma was significantly relieved [in the prison] where the labor force was composed of a mass of perpetually confined, rightless, convicts. As John Sherwood Perry put it, in his typically direct manner, “(t)here is no intemperance, a minimum amount of sickness; there are no ‘Blue Mondays’, and no strikes.”

By extension, prison industries promised contractors a much higher degree of control over the pace and general process of production than was the case with waged workers in free industry. Wholly dependent upon the state for the bare necessities of life, and socially and physically confined, prisoners were not merely a steady source of cheap labor, but also an unorganized and highly exploitable body of workers – unlike their increasingly assertive counterparts in the free world.

Those two paragraphs summarize the ideal workforce to the Randian-wing of the conservative movement.

3) We take it for granted that sensible, liberal reforms are called “socialist” by conservatives and businessmen these days. But one of my favorite examples of this comes from 1879. This chart, from 1879, gives an example of how much prison labor was undercutting free market wages:

See how the convict wage is often 50 cents when free wages were well over a dollar?  The sensible liberal reform would be to make the prison charge something more approximate to the free wage.

Let’s hand the microphone to Massachusetts’ State Chief of Labor Statistics, Carroll D. Wright, in the Annual report of the Commissioner of Labor, Volume 1, 1879, an in-depth investigation of the nations prison labor market (graph above is from that, report referenced in McKennan).   Does he think this reform is socialist or not-socialist?  p 329:

II. The prohibition by law of any contract for convict labor at lower rates per day than the average paid for outside labor of the same kind.

To secure legislation to this end petitions have been extensively circulated and signed…The socialist would hail such legislation with delight; for it would be in the direction of his demands that the state shall establish prices of labor and goods.

!!!   Mind you, this is the exact opposite of the state establishing prices.   But that’s not what this team was after back then – they simply wanted a more docile, and cheaper, labor force.

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5 Responses to New Frontiers in State Budget Reform: Putting Incarcerated Prisoners To Work. Also 1879.

  1. Tim says:

    I find our desire to recreate wage-slave or slave economic systems within our country to be pretty telling of the desires and priorities of the ruling classes (which now mix freely with the business classes via the revolving door).

  2. chris says:

    It’s extra specially obscene to do this when unemployment for law-abiding workers is so high — as I posted elsewhere, now our jobs can be stolen by actual thieves.

  3. Great post, and an excellent point to boot. Although, I take issue with your attribution of the prison critique to “libertarian”(s). Libertarians might want to decriminalize or legalize many currently criminal actions but (the ones I’ve talked to) still take violations of certain laws (e.g. property rights) pretty seriously and have no problem jailing those people – I think a critique of the prison system per se is much more consonant with anarchist thinking in the tradition of Godwin. Reminds me of the praise that Hayek sometimes merits from the left – he was right about a lot of things but the stuff he was right about was pointed out by his left-anarchist counterparts long before he was around.

  4. jimsresearchnotes says:

    Agree. It confirms Rusche and Kirchheimer’s thesis in Punishment and Social Structure. Its also interesting to see yet another book with “The Making of” in the title from E.P Thompson The Making of the English Working Class.

  5. Howard Wu says:

    In California I heard rumors they have been made available to work phone banks. Maybe this could also solve our governors current problems of the cost of teachers in our public schools too.

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