As cash-starved state governments scrape their way through this so-called recovery, they might as well hang signs with this message on their capitals: "Everything must go." States are hemorrhaging workers and selling off assets at a startling rate as they grapple with anemic tax revenues and dwindling federal dollars. So dire are the states' economic woes that, in recent years, they've begun offloading a more unusual type of property: prisons.
That's right -- states are so broke they've resorted to selling off their correctional facilities (with the prisoners inside) as a way to cut costs and make ends meet. In 2011, for instance, Ohio sold one of its prisons for $73 million to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the country. And make no mistake: CCA and its ilk are eager buyers. As the Huffington Post reported in February, CCA sent a letter to 48 governors offering to buy -- not just manage, but acquire entirely -- prisons in their states. The company said it had earmarked $250 million for buying and running state-owned prisons as part of a "corrections investment initiative."
But CCA, to borrow a trope from journalism, buried the "lede" in the governors' letter. The real head-snapping revelation appeared in the third-to-last paragraph: in exchange for buying a state's prison, CCA required that the state prison agency ensure that the prison remained at least 90% full. Translation: We'll buy your prisons and keep 'em orderly and clean, so as long you keep the prisoners coming in.
This is just the latest episode in the decades-long takeover of the prison industry by private interests. Reagan's "tough on crime" policies, as Michelle Alexander has written, caused spiraling incarceration rates, which in turn spawned a cottage industry of prison management companies looking to make a buck off the influx of inmates. CCA, for instance, has watched revenues grow by 500% in the past two decades.
Another growth industry in our Age of Incarceration is prison labor, putting inmates to work making everything from uniforms to furniture for a few cents an hour. As historians and TomDispatch regulars Steve Fraser and Joshua Freeman explain, prison labor has a long and sordid history that should make us anxious indeed for our own degraded economic moment. Leasing prisoners to companies at wages from hell is a "Yankee invention" dating back almost 200 years that was modern then and, frighteningly enough, couldn't be more modern today. Andy Kroll
Sweatshop labor is back with a vengeance. It can be found across broad stretches of the American economy and around the world. Penitentiaries have become a niche market for such work. The privatization of prisons in recent years has meant the creation of a small army of workers too coerced and right-less to complain.
Prisoners, whose ranks increasingly consist of those for whom the legitimate economy has found no use, now make up a virtual brigade within the reserve army of the unemployed whose ranks have ballooned along with the U.S. incarceration rate. The Corrections Corporation of America and G4S (formerly Wackenhut), two prison privatizers, 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 prisoners to work on the outside. All told, nearly a million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses, or manufacturing textiles, shoes, and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day.
Rarely can you find workers so pliable, easy to control, stripped of political rights, and subject to martial discipline at the first sign of recalcitrance -- unless, that is, you traveled back to the nineteenth century when convict labor was commonplace nationwide. Indeed, a sentence of "confinement at hard labor" was then the essence of the American penal system. More than that, it was one vital way the United States became a modern industrial capitalist economy -- at a moment, eerily like our own, when the mechanisms of capital accumulation were in crisis.
A Yankee Invention
What some historians call "the long Depression" of the nineteenth century, which lasted from the mid-1870s through the mid-1890s, was marked by frequent panics and slumps, mass bankruptcies, deflation, and self-destructive competition among businesses designed to depress costs, especially labor costs. So, too, we are living through a twenty-first century age of panics and austerity with similar pressures to shrink the social wage.
Convict labor has been and once again is an appealing way for business to address these dilemmas. Penal servitude now strikes us as a barbaric throwback to some long-lost moment that preceded the industrial revolution, but in that we're wrong. From its first appearance in this country, it has been associated with modern capitalist industry and large-scale agriculture.
And that is only the first of many misconceptions about this peculiar institution. Infamous for the brutality with which prison laborers were once treated, indelibly linked in popular memory (and popular culture) with images of the black chain gang in the American South, it is usually assumed to be a Southern invention. So apparently atavistic, it seems to fit naturally with the retrograde nature of Southern life and labor, its economic and cultural underdevelopment, its racial caste system, and its desperate attachment to the "lost cause."
As it happens, penal servitude -- the leasing out of prisoners to private enterprise, either within prison walls or in outside workshops, factories, and fields -- was originally known as a "Yankee invention."