The Crisis of Imprisonment

I don’t read anywhere near as much history as I’d like, and I realize that when I read something that is excellent. If the topic interests you, I’d highly recommend The Crisis of Imprisonment: Protest, Politics, and the Making of the American Penal State, 1776-1941.

The recent book, by Berkeley historian Rebecca McLennan, is a walk through the creation and evolution of the distinctly American penal state. It’s primary focus is on the massive, brutal yet profitable, prison labor industry that existed for much of the 19th century, and the struggle to reform it.

A few additional things:

1) Forced, unpaid prison labor contracted out to third parties was a very common element of the 19th century penal system. It was thought to be good for workers, and it allowed the prison industry to grow as the profits made by contracting out production of goods inside the prison to third parties, where businesses paid the state for use of the labor, almost paid for the prison itself.

It’s something whose footprint shows up in a lot of places I didn’t expect. Take The 13th Amendment: “Section 1. 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.” Note the exception that had to be made in 1865 that would still allow involuntary servitude for prisoners – I never caught that before!

2) It’s a book of history, but there are points where the late 19th century prison looks to be the forming ground for the ideal of the 20th century firm. One problem proto-industrialists in the 19th century had to deal with was that it was difficult to keep workers in place, consistently productive, on a timed schedule. They were always wanting more money or else they’d leave for other jobs! The prison certainly took care of that:

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. (p. 111)

Any theory of the firm that isn’t just about reducing transaction costs but is also about organizing the body through disciplinary mechanisms makes my eyes light up. How much is firm organization about creating a docile mass of bodies to manipulate, particularly when it comes to using an option of exit?

3) Torture was routinely used in these 19th century prisons to keep disorganization low and prison labor productivity high. Because of the specific times I live in, I always pay close attention to when an agent of the U.S. government drowns someone under his control in order to convince him to do something. Sometimes that thing is signing a confession or revealing information. Sometimes it is something else:

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.” (p. 130)

The waterboard is deployable In Defense of Country, and In Defense of Industry as well.

4) Enter the progressives. One thing about this prison labor is that the prison wage rate is being set well below the standard free labor rate in local areas. The progressives complained. This is my new favorite thing:

In 1879, Massachusetts’ State Chief of Labor Statistics, Carroll D. Wright, submitted an exhaustive study not only of his own state’s prison labor practices, but those of the nation as a whole….[He] derided as “socialist” the demand of Massachusetts workingmen that the state fix the price of prison labor at the same level as that of free workers.

Woah! Did some proto-economist call out people complaining about the wages of prison labor not being set competitively as “socialist”? Is this the 19th century version of our time’s: “I’m not saying you are a socialist, I’m just saying that the suggestion that people who are waterboarded if they don’t make bolts aren’t getting a competitive bolt-making wage is the kind of suggestion a socialist would make”?

I almost didn’t believe it. Here’s something fantastic: we can actually pull that 1879 study up on google books. Here’s the Annual report of the Commissioner of Labor, Volume 1, 1879 (should go to page 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.

How wonderful is that “government takeover” scare quote? It’s just so wrong in this context it is amazing. It’s actually the opposite of what he means it to be – the government is establishing the price of labor by using force to undercut local markets, presumably making little bureaucrats running prisons a healthy kickback.

(Yes I can hear the first comment that is going to say that prison labor isn’t as marginally productive so the wage should be less. Luckily the 1879 document has an insane amount of statistics – here’s a snippet showing that prison labor was around 40% less productive, and here’s a snippet showing the wages being set at 60%+ lower rates. Seems like a sweet deal for businesses.)

All in all, a highly recommended book.

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16 Responses to The Crisis of Imprisonment

  1. gabe says:

    The wage has to equal the marginal productivity. If what you said was true, firms would enter and bid up the price of prison labor until wage=MPL. It’s all there in Mas-Collel…

    • Not the Mike You're Looking For says:

      This is a very good point. I can think of three reasons:

      1. Forced labor is of lower quality than free labor.
      2. The warden puts a high enough price on his labor that he does not search for the best price.
      3. Labor at below-market wages is a gift to political cronies.

      Are there others? I’m not surprised that convicts get lower wages than free workers, but I just can’t put my finger on the exact reason why.

      • gabe says:

        I was actually kidding. There is no violence or coercion in most economic models, which makes a *big* difference. There’s power other than market power. This is also why having sociologists around can help, since economists tend to miss this.

        Not to go on a tangent, but this is a big deal for superfreakonomics and prostitution. Any violence or coercion is left out, which could explain why more women aren’t prostitutes because, ya know, they’re not sex slaves.

      • Not the Mike You're Looking For says:

        Well, you may have been kidding, but you actually had a good point in spite of yourself. If you take the “wage” as the rate the warden was charging his customers, rather than how much the convicts were getting, then it wouldn’t be so far-fetched for w=MPL.

  2. gabe says:

    It’s incredible how appealing the corvee was. Forced labor never gets old.

    You can see the frictions between free markets and capitalism. The capitalists clearly didn’t want competitive labor markets, they wanted unfree slave labor.

  3. Matt Frost says:

    Dork that I am, I’m intrigued by the row indices on the first sample table. Someone took the trouble to typeset those numbers (20-24, 1-9), which you’d almost never see on a table today.

  4. Karl Smith says:

    gabe: I can’t tell if you are being facetious but I don’t think its hard to imagine that prison camps are operating on a corner solution. All the standard results only hold for internal solutions.

    Mike: Are you suggesting that the firm is a tool of extortion? Would you like to flesh out this theory more generally?

    Lets be clear. It is obvious that firms could take advantage of very low reservation wages in what might be termed exploitation. However, you seem to be going further and suggesting extortion. That firms are in some way akin to cults which lure member in and then alter their opportunity set so that they have little choice but to keep working for the firm.

  5. Not the Mike You're Looking For says:

    Mike, if you’re interested in these issues, you ought to check out The Invention of Free Labor by Robert J. Steinfeld. Fascinating stuff.

  6. Mike says:

    Karl: I can’t find it now, but I’m pretty sure that the 1887 document points out that the hessian is negative semidefinite – so interior solution! Point goes to Gabe!

    MTMYLF – Just the title of that book makes me really happy. I’ll check it out.

    Matt – Looking through that document, I get what some people say about how the modern state is created alongside the creation of statistics; it’s just in love with tallying and enumerating and charting and averaging large bodies of captive people.

    From what I hear from various people who have worked with historical consumer data, the New Deal era consumer statistics are some of the best ever collected. As part of the employment schemes the government said “fuck it let’s pay people to go around having very detailed discussions on how much money is spent on potatoes.”

    Now some machine creature in the basement of google is doing that to all of us right now, in methods so complex that these jailors and new dealers couldn’t even imagine them. So much for my backup stimulus jobs creation plan!

  7. Matt Frost says:

    Tallying and averaging are so 20th century. Clustering and classification is where it’s all happening now. That may be a distinction without a difference, but I somehow doubt it. If the 20th century was about aggregating populations for analysis and control, the 21st will be about dividing them in politically and economically fruitful ways.

    Either way, it’s Hal Varian’s world, we’re just clicking on it. (NB: pregnant women, small children, or people with heart conditions shouldn’t click on that first link.)

  8. Mike says:

    To all, I cannot recommend the book The Elements of Statistical Learning more for clustering et al techniques. It makes me feel joy it’s such a beautifully well done book, and it really is the future.

    Matt keep your eye on the prize – it’s the shareholder’s world; Hal et al will eventually go spend their time running some foundation or buying sports teams to mismanage or writing more textbooks or whatever; and then it’s legions of yes-men, go-getter MBAs, and social-disorder level of indifferent quants who will crunch anything. That’s when I think it will get interesting. That’s when we can really begin the monetizing process.

    I have something coming where two researchers found a gene correlated with credit card debt. Interest rates and fees targeted at your allele level – how’s that for a future?

  9. gabe says:

    Maybe I shouldn’t start this on someone else’s blog, but…

    Is there any empirical evidence that real wage=MPL (marginal product of labor)? It’s quite important, but I’ve never seen a paper checking whether it holds. If wageMPL?

  10. gabe says:

    My last post got cut off for some reasons…

    If wage less than MPL, then this represents some some of exploitation where workers are underpaid versus what they are producing.

    I was under the impression that the cambridge capital controversy was more about capital and whether the marginal productivity of capital equallled the interest rate. Did this have implications for wages? I guess if the MPK not= r then the MPL=wage should be disturbed too right?

    I was thinking more of a neoclassical exploitation of labor like in Robinson 1933.

  11. DJ says:

    I only just got around to reading this post. Good stuff!

    Another book that’s along these lines is the one by Douglas A. Blackmon called “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II “.

  12. ComparedToWhat says:

    Just to second the Blackmon recommendation. It was a very difficult read for me, but rewarding. It describes in excruciating detail how the penal system was used to re-institute the enslavement of African Americans in the South after the Civil War, perhaps most horrifically in industrial settings such as coal mines and iron works.

    MK: “Any theory of the firm that isn’t just about reducing transaction costs but is also about organizing the body through disciplinary mechanisms makes my eyes light up.”

    Anyone who evidently has read Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish” provokes a likewise reaction here!

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