The Labor of Doing Time


by Julie Browne
This article is excerpted from a senior thesis for the University of California, Santa Cruz, written in 1995. It was first published in Criminal Injustice: Confronting the Prison Crisis, by the Prison Activist Resource Center. Full version of the article is available on request. –Editors
The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution reads:
“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.”
Before the abolition of slavery there was no real prison system in the United States. Punishment for crime consisted of physical torture The first penitentiaries were designed in England and France in response to growing criticism of the extreme use of public violence as the only means of deterring crime. The basis of the penitentiary was that the detention itself was the punishment, and the “penitentiary ideal consisted of extreme isolation of criminals from society, extensive supervision over their daily lives, and compulsory productive labor.”
One of the first penitentiaries in the United States was opened in Auburn, New York. A few years after this first prison was opened in Auburn, New York in 1817, a local citizen was given a contract to operate a factory within the prison. Initially, inmate labor was purported to assist in the discipline and redemption of criminals; however, the potential net profit from convict labor was the driving force of the popularity of the Auburn system throughout the South.
By the 1840s, “the development of prosperous prison industries was the most earnest concern of the wardens in all state prisons, and the penitentiary that was the least expensive was considered the most successful.”
After the Civil War, the 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery for all people except those convicted of a crime. [It] opened the door for mass criminalization. When African Americans were no longer legally held as slaves or property, there was a tremendous increase in the number of African-American convicts. Before the Civil War, laws called the Slave Codes governed the rights of slaves and all African Americans in the South. When slavery was legally abolished, the Slave Codes were rewritten as the Black Codes. Standing in one area of town or walking at night, for example, became the criminal acts of “loitering” or “breaking curfew” for which African Americans were imprisoned.
Convict Leasing
The convict lease system functioned with the Black Codes to reestablish and maintain the race relationships of slavery by returning the control over the lives of these African Americans to white plantation owners.
From the beginning there was criticism of the cruelty and brutality in the convict lease system. Journalists, community members, ministers, dockers, and union organizers worked to draw attention to the experiences of state prisoners. Women, such as Rebecca Felton in Georgia and Julia Tutwiler in Alabama, organized demonstrations and “crusades” targeting specific camps or politicians. Finally in the 1890s, legislative reports were issued describing the brutal daily beatings, often with leather straps studded with wooden shoe pegs, inflicted on the workers in these camps. The rise in prison reform organizing in the 1930s also brought attention to some of the experiences of female convicts.
One investigative committee in Tennessee found that women were being made to work in a hosiery mill, and were often flogged, hung by their wrists, or placed in solitary confinement as punishment for poor productivity at the work site.
The Prison Industry Authority
In California, prisoners have been manufacturing goods for state agencies since the turn of the century. In 1944, the Prison Reorganization Act created the California Correctional Industries Program to oversee all prison manufacturing programs. In the 1980s this office was transformed into the Prison Industry Authority. Through these industries the inmates have produced all of the work that supports the prison system, such as making the clothes, washing the clothes, and building the cell equipment, day room furniture, lockers, and mess hall tables. Prisoners have made shoes, bedding, clothing, detergents, stationery products, license plates, and furniture for all state agencies. In addition, convict laborers have provided “special services” such as dental lab work, micro graphics, and printing. The women’s prison industries have generally been in the areas of reupholstery, fabric production, laundry, and data entry. This enormous, multi-million dollar industry was purportedly created to address the problem of “inmate idleness,” according to the CDoC, by helping in rehabilitation, building effective work habits, and providing job training. Yet a prisoner who spends her 10-year sentence processing stationery products on an assembly line or washing laundry has not learned any employable skill, nor been mentally and emotionally challenged through this service to the state.
By 1982, when the California Correctional Industry was transformed into the Prison Industry Authority, the issue of inmate rehabilitation wasn’t even included in the industry’s statement of purpose. The legislature created the PIA so that the industries run within California prisons would be economically independent and self-supporting, “allowing it to function outside the normal State budgetary process.” Given the rising cost of imprisonment and the increasing tax burden, the PIA had been “vested with the powers and responsibilities characteristic of a private corporation,” placing profit at the center of the organization of production. The current mission statement of the PIA is:

  1. Producing and selling, at a profit, quality goods and services at competitive prices with timely delivery.
  2. Maintaining a safe, clean, secure, and efficient environment that promotes work ethic.
  3. Expanding markets and developing new products.

There is nothing in this mission statement that indicates any commitment to training or rehabilitation. The PIA mission statement focuses on the profiteering interests of an industry that can rely on a stable, growing, exploitable population of workers who are prohibited from organizing on their own behalf.
Throughout U.S. history, social movements have abolished different systems of brutality and exploitation only to have them return. There will never be a benevolent form of imprisonment. The reform that we have a responsibility to demand is the abolition of the prison itself.