In the North, where 80% of all U.S. prison labor was employed after the Civil War and which accounted for over $35 billion in output (in current dollars), the system was reconfigured to meet the needs of modern industry and the pressures of "the long Depression." Convict labor was increasingly leased out only to a handful of major manufacturers in each state. These textile mills, oven makers, mining operations, hat and shoe factories -- one in Wisconsin leased that state's entire population of convicted felons -- were then installing the kind of mass production methods becoming standard in much of American industry. As organized markets for prison labor grew increasingly oligopolistic (like the rest of the economy), the Depression of 1873 and subsequent depressions in the following decades wiped out many smaller businesses that had once gone trawling for convicts.
Today, we talk about a newly "flexible economy," often a euphemism for the geometric growth of a precariously positioned, insecure workforce. The convict labor system of the nineteenth century offered an original specimen of perfect flexibility.
Companies leasing convicts enjoyed authority to dispose of their rented labor power as they saw fit. Workers were compelled to labor in total silence. Even hand gestures and eye contact were prohibited for the purpose of creating "silent and insulated working machines."
Supervision of prison labor was ostensibly shared by employers and the prison authorities. In fact, many businesses did continue to conduct their operations within prison walls where they supplied the materials, power, and machinery, while the state provided guards, workshops, food, clothing, and what passed for medical care. As a matter of practice though, the foremen of the businesses called the shots. And there were certain states, including Nebraska, Washington, and New Mexico, that, like their Southern counterparts, ceded complete control to the lessee. As one observer put it, "Felons are mere machines held to labor by the dark cell and the scourge."
Free market industrial capitalism, then and now, invariably draws on the aid of the state. In that system's formative phases, the state has regularly used its coercive powers of taxation, expropriation, and in this case incarceration to free up natural and human resources lying outside the orbit of capitalism proper.
In both the North and the South, the contracting out of convict labor was one way in which that state-assisted mechanism of capital accumulation arose. Contracts with the government assured employers that their labor force would be replenished anytime a worker got sick, was disabled, died, or simply became too worn out to continue.
The Kansas Wagon Company, for example, signed a five-year contract in 1877 that prevented the state from raising the rental price of labor or renting to other employers. The company also got an option to renew the lease for 10 more years, while the government was obliged to pay for new machinery, larger workshops, a power supply, and even the building of a switching track that connected to the trunk line of the Pacific Railway and so ensured that the product could be moved effectively to market.
Penal institutions all over the country became auxiliary arms of capitalist industry and commerce. Two-thirds of all prisoners worked for private enterprise.
Today, strikingly enough, government is again providing subsidies and tax incentives as well as facilities, utilities, and free space for corporations making use of this same category of abjectly dependent labor.
The New Abolitionism
Dependency and flexibility naturally assumed no resistance, but there was plenty of that all through the nineteenth century from workers, farmers, and even prisoners. Indeed, a principal objective in using prison labor was to undermine efforts to unionize, but from the standpoint of mobilized working people far more was at stake.
Opposition to convict labor arose from workingmen's associations, labor-oriented political parties, journeymen unions, and other groups which considered the system an insult to the moral codes of egalitarian republicanism nurtured by the American Revolution. The specter of proletarian dependency haunted the lives of the country's self-reliant handicraftsmen who watched apprehensively as shops employing wage labor began popping up across the country. Much of the earliest of this agitation was aimed at the use of prisoners to replace skilled workers (while unskilled prison labor was initially largely ignored).
It was bad enough for craftsmen to see their own livelihoods and standards of living put in jeopardy by "free" wage labor. Worse still was to watch unfree labor do the same thing. At the time, employers were turning to that captive prison population to combat attempts by aggrieved workers to organize and defend themselves. On the eve of the Civil War, for example, an iron-molding contractor in Spuyten Duyvil, north of Manhattan in the Bronx, locked out his unionized workers and then moved his operation to Sing Sing penitentiary, where a laborer cost 40 cents, $2.60 less than the going day rate. It worked, and Local 11 of the Union of Iron Workers quickly died away.
Worst of all was to imagine this debased form of work as a model for the proletarian future to come. The workingman's movement of the Jacksonian era was deeply alarmed by the prospect of "wage slavery," a condition inimical to their sense of themselves as citizens of a republic of independent producers. Prison labor was a sub-species of that dreaded "slavery," a caricature of it perhaps, and intolerable to a movement often as much about emancipation as unionization.
All the way through the Gilded Age of the 1890s, convict labor continued to serve as a magnet for emancipatory desires. In addition, prisoners' rebellions became ever more common -- in the North particularly, where many prisoners turned out to be Civil War veterans and dispossessed working people who already knew something about fighting for freedom and fighting back. Major penitentiaries like Sing Sing became sites of repeated strikes and riots; a strike in 1877 even took on the transplanted Spuyten Duyvil iron-molding company.