The Labor Market-Prison Dynamic

I am not fan of penal slavery. I routinely criticize forced labor programs in my criminal justice courses. I am skeptical of the modern prison generally; too many people confined for too long for offenses that do not rise to the seriousness that a prison term should signal.

However, to the extent that prisons are not forced labor camps, productive work by prisoners may be beneficial — for them and for society. Done the right way, prison labor is simultaneously rehabilitative, restitutive, and restorative. An effective antidote to the isolation that exacerbates the problem of prisonization, work can help prisoners transition to life in a free society.

Because of the relationship between prison and labor markets, increased use of prison labor signals improving economic conditions. Historically, improving economic conditions enhance the social worth of prisoners. This is due to the unique character of the labor commodity: people come with it. Rising commodity prices make persons more valuable.

The political economy of modern carceral institution may be conceptualized as a pendulum oscillating between amplitudes of repression/retribution and rehabilitation/restitution. Amplitude is correlative with long economic waves of contraction and expansion. When the economy is in a slump, punishment is more repressive/retributive. Law and order become harsh and prisoners are warehoused. Rehabilitation is associated with a booming economy.

These swings are associated with popular moods. A conservative mood accompanies the swing towards repression. These moments tends towards the authoritarian and feature rightwing politics. A swing towards rehabilitation is associated with a more liberal mood, marked by tolerance and an emphasis on liberty. Ideological selection of social scientific theories about crime and violence shifts in the oscillation, as well. Economic dynamics produce a deep intersubjectivity that is often remote to personal consciousness; attitudes are swept up and carried with the currents.

The United States today is in the thrall of an optimistic, libertarian mood. Many states, along with the federal government, are reforming or moving to reform their carceral systems. Some states are sending delegations to Norway to learn about that country’s extraordinarily low rates of recidivism. The Drug War is drawing down, marked by the legalization of cannabis and growing sympathy for those affected by opioids.

All this suggests a decarceration trend and the need for work for those formerly warehoused in the vast US prison archipelago. However, there is a countervailing force, prompted by misguided humanitarian sympathy and a project of denationalization, that could slow the rate at which the surplus surplus labor force is shrinking: the desire to maintain high levels of immigration to the United States.

* * *

We have seen in the leftwing press concern about the use of prison labor in agricultural production, for example, “Convicts are returning to farming – anti-immigrantpolicies are the reason,” in The Conversation. The story frame is that the reduction in migrant workers flows compels farmers to utilize prison labor as substitution. Estimates of the market find that as much as seventy percent of farm labor is comprised of migrant workers. There are an estimated eleven million illegal aliens in the United States, a large proportion of them from Central America and Mexico. Around a million and a half of them work in agriculture. Because of the vulnerability of this population, the average wage remains low, around $10 per hour. Farmers seek an alternative source of labor for this price or less. They are turning to prison labor.

Two concerns of the left thus intersect. First, because of widespread poverty and criminal violence in Central American and Mexico, access to markets and social services in the United States is proffered to migrants as a humanitarian gesture. A movement calling for governments to relax enforcement of national boundaries has been gathering for a number of years. At its extreme, the movement calls for closing immigrant detention facilities, halting deportations, and even abolishing law enforcement agencies. This movement is supported by forces on the political right representing business interests (such as the Koch brothers), as well as religious groups, in particular the Catholic Church, which runs more than 120 shelters along the migrant trail through Mexico, providing shelter, food, and clothing, as well as legal assistance, to hundreds of thousands migrants annually.

Second, because of its well documented cruelty and racial character, prison labor is a badge of slavery. With the collapse of Reconstruction after the Civil War, the nation saw the practice of convict leasing become widespread in the South. Former slaves and their offspring were transported in mobile cages to perform difficult work. Discipline in the labor camps was harsh. During its heyday, around ninety percent of convicts leased by governments were African American. For misdemeanant chain gangs, the black percentage approached one hundred. The conditions under which convicts were treated prompted historical David M. Oshinsky to title his 1996 book on the subject Worse than Slavery.

Convicts leased to harvest timber in Florida circa 1915.

Although I am of the left, I disagree with the demand for open borders. Moreover, while we must reckon the effects of race on labor markets, in bother the past and the present, we cannot assume a priori that prison labor is a manifestation of racial caste. Instead of relying on foreign labor, farmers could hire populations prone to higher incarceration rates. Instead of ghettoizing African Americans and Latinos in socially disorganized central cities with few opportunities and substandard housing, racially integrated communities could be constructed around sites of agricultural production. Reorganizing social life in this manner could reduce crime while providing dignity to hundreds of thousands of marginalized, disproportionally black American workers. Such a development would likely be disruptive to the culture of violence that presently marks inner city communities.

This approach to crime could go a long way to solving the problem of mass incarceration. today, the United States confines in its jails and prisons more than two million persons. At least two-thirds of incarcerated persons are unemployed or earning less than $5,000 a year when they commit the crime for which they are sentenced. The remaining third are typically only marginally better off. Strong labor force attachment is powerfully crime preventive, particularly for the types of crime for which prison are more likely, i.e. the Index Crimes of aggravated assault, burglary, homicide, motor vehicle theft, and robbery. Gainful employment not only allow people to meet their material needs and wants, but also promotes law-abidingness. It has been known for more than a century and a half that economic insecurity demoralizes members of the working class, who are then more likely to turn to crime and violence to get the things they need and want and to vent their anger and frustration. There is a famous saying in criminology, attributed to historian Henry Thomas Buckle, who wrote in 1840, “Society prepares the crime, the criminal commits it.”

Economic insecurity is produced by several forces, including changing preferences in commodity markets, the automation and mechanization of work, organizational efficiencies, offshoring of production, and immigration. Offshoring and immigration are two aspects of the same strategy; capitalists can either move factories and farms to where desired labor supplies are or they can import labor to the factories and farms. Both practices displace workers and disorganize communities. Currently, the United States allows some one million foreign-born persons to legally enter the country annually to live, work, and go to school. The proportion of foreign-born persons in the United States is presently around 13.5 percent of the population, approximately the same proportion of foreign-born in the early twentieth century that compelled the government to emplace sharp restrictions on immigration in the 1920s.

Although rarely acknowledged by governments, whose structural function is to facilitate economic growth and development, capitalist exploitation of transnational labor flows is a source of inequality and joblessness in the United States. Even less acknowledged is the evidence showing that inequality and joblessness are sources of crime and violence. There are other forces that militate against the criminogenic effect of labor market conditions, such as the degree to which modern life is virtually lived, but this does not remove the criminogenic conditions. Economic planning with a focus on the fortunes of native-born workers could greatly enhance the social life of working people.

The exciting news is that we are in the midst of a long economic expansion, with an associated drop in the unemployment rate. The popular mood associated with economic expansion fosters a general liberal attitude towards punishment in which the public is more responsive to reforming the system in the direction of rehabilitation over repression. This situation has produced a willingness among politicians in several states to reduce the severity of criminal penalties, dismantle or roll back enforcement of drug prohibition regimes, and open up their carceral institutions to treatment and rehabilitation regimes, including models of restorative justice. As the United States moves along this path, prison-prone populations may transition into the workforce, especially with concerted government action.

But if the country continues the current pace of immigration, or increases the flow, the positive effects on prison-prone populations will be limited and even reversed, especially when the economy contracts again. Boom and bust, the respiration of the beast, are intrinsic features of the capitalist economic system. We are probably close to the exhale.

* * *

In their landmark work Punishment and Social Structure, first published in 1939, and based on Rusche’s 1933 analysis of labor markets and penal sanction, Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer develop a critical political economy of punishment and rehabilitation based on the dynamic of capitalist labor markets (I discuss this briefly under “Myth #2” in a November 2018 entry “PBS and Immigration Apologetics“). Rusche and Kirchheimer observed that prison conditions improved in times of labor scarcity because the price of the labor commodity rises and along with it the relative worth of the bearer of that commodity, which is in turn associated with a turn in penal philosophy and practice towards reform/rehabilitation over against repression/retribution.

One of the key elements of their thesis is that, under capitalism, the price of commodities (labor is a commodity in the capitalist mode of production and its price is the wage) is a function of supply and demand. When there is a surplus of labor, the price of the labor commodity falls; with labor scarcity, the price of the labor commodity rises. Since the labor commodity is value producing, the cheaper the labor commodity, the smaller proportion of the total value of the commodity is taken up by variable capital (the labor input) and the greater the surplus value, which, if successfully realized, generates greater profits. Because the labor commodity comes with the laborer, the conditions of the latter improve with the rising price of his commodity. This is why labor unions impact the rate of profit: collective bargaining secures higher wages. This is the reason Wall Street doesn’t like strong job reports, and major shifts in investment are promoted by reports of rising wages. To compensate, central bankers increase the price of money to slow investment that may result in more and better paying jobs.

Capitalism uses the variable size of the working population as a mechanism to regulate the price of the labor commodity. Capitalists desire a growing population during periods of economic expansion. Functionaries of this class are concerned when women regulate their reproductive capacity for personal rather than public (as the bourgeoisie defines it) ends. When domestic fertility rates are low, capitalists promote immigration to push down the price of labor by creating surpluses in the labor commodity. This strategy works in both low-wage labor-intensive and high-wage capital-intensive industries across agricultural, manufacturing, and services sectors in private and public enterprises.

Labor surpluses come with problems. They generate inequality and poverty, and these are correlative with social disorganization, political unrest, and crime and violence. Thus prisons appear in history alongside industrialization and the appearance of large surplus population — and all the attendant problems these entail — as means of population control.

* * *

The United States is in the midst of an unusually robust economic expansion. Jobless has fallen to levels unseen in decades. This expansion threatens to produce upward pressure on wages. The decimation of labor unions over the last fifty years has kept wages from rising rapidly, but capitalists remain concerned. They are always on the lookout for signs of inflation, that growth in prices that erodes their return on investment. Indeed, the decimation of labor unions was the result of an organized effort by concerned capitalists, beginning in the late 1940s with legislation that weakened unions, initiating the spread of “right-to-work” laws to numerous states, and followed by the government opening the US economy to world trade and immigration in the 1960s-70s. Met by popular opposition to immigration, the government periodically cracks down on illegal immigration, throwing the working class a bone while maintaining an high annual rate of legal immigration. But they desire a change in popular opinion back to one of apathy on the national question.

Popular opposition to immigration, focused by the election of Donald Trump, is making it difficult to keep the nation open to the free flow of illegal immigrants for low-wage agricultural work. When they aren’t denying that there is a problem, Democrats strive to turn public opinion against Trump’s immigration stance by generating propaganda about the conditions at the border. Their argument is that the crisis at the border is not because migrants are lured to the United States by big business in search of cheap labor and religious organizations in search of congregants prone to dependency, but because of government efforts to slow immigration. The desire of the former is antithetical to the public good as defined by working class interests.

In the meantime, as the labor force continues to shrink relative to demand, we are seeing a drive to reform the prison system in order to utilize the labor it contains. Just as Rusche and Kirchheimer predicted, labor shortages are increasing the worth of prisoners. So, while prison labor is less than desirable (albeit better than warehousing human beings in Supermax prisons), the need for it is a positive indicator of improving conditions for working people. We need to keep to this path, the path supported by democratic populism.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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