Prisoner, Laborer, or Slave: The Historical Struggle over Classifying Prison Laborers

Tyler Smith, University of Washington

The increasing use of prison labor by private companies has raised questions about the expansion of the modern carceral state. However, the practice of contractual prison labor has a long and controversial history. Prison factories were foundational to prisons in the 1800s, before contestation over the practice led to its abandonment in most northern states near the turn of the 20th century. The decline of contractual prison labor is often explained by changes in the political-economy that made contracting less profitable and increasing the political power of labor unions who were able to pressure law makers into abolishing the practice (Rusche and Kirchheimer 1939; McLennan 2008). While these economic considerations were undoubtably influential, we should also pay closer attention to the ways that cultural conceptions of punishment motivate penal policy (Smith 2008). What materialist conceptions miss is an understanding of the symbolic importance that prison labor played in the fight over labor rights in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. In this study, I will examine debates over contractual prison labor in New York in the decades following the Civil War. In doing so, I frame the debate as a “classification struggle” (Bourdieu 1984) in which actors attempted to create or erase distinctions between prison laborers, free laborers, and slaves in ways that served their symbolic and material interests. In particular, I will explore the boundary work that labor organizations and actors engaged in to distinguish free work from prison work, and how these conceptions drew upon cultural idioms of freedom and citizenship in the wake of industrialization and the abolition of slavery. Overall, this study will provide a fuller explanation of why and how prison labor policies were changed by emphasizing the importance of cultural and symbolic dynamics in the process of institutional change.

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 Presented in Session 177. Crime, Justice and the Law