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Book Reviews

Profits First! Convict Labor in America

Alex Lichtenstein, Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South (London and New York: Verso, 1996).

Matthew J. Mancini, One Dies Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South (Columbia S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1996).

David M. Oshinsky, 'Worse than Slavery': Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (New York: The Free Press, 1996).

These books are a part of an exciting renaissance of convict labor studies that come at an enormously critical moment in the history of prison "reform..' Internationally, the growth of prison labor is gaining momentum and support daily. It is claimed for example, that China, aided by direct foreign investment, employs between ten to twenty million prisoners in its enormously profitable commercial export enterprises.

The United States, in the throes of a vicious social war against the poor, is poised on the brink of dismantling New Deal legislative prohibitions such as the Ashurst-Sumners Act which made the interstate transport of prison-made goods a felony offense. [In 63 years, not one person has been prosecuted under the Act!] Today's convict laborers package items like Microsoft Windows 95 and Starbucks Coffee. They build cars, make waterbeds, assemble circuit boards for nuclear power plants and are deployed to help break strikes.

In fact, labor journals are reporting that employers in Wisconsin and Texas are beginning to close factories that employ free labor only to reopen in prisons with convict workforces shortly thereafter. Convict labor has once again become an issue that we must energetically address.

Alex Lichtenstein's Twice the Work of Free Labor seeks to place the institution of convict labor at the intersection of post-Civil War class relations, industrial capitalism, and the U.S. South's road to modernization. Lichtenstein argues that the traditional image of the chain gang at work on the prison plantation must be broadened to encompass the role that predominantly African-American convict laborers played in building the South's industrial infrastructure.

While Twice the Work focuses on Georgia, Lichtenstein's concern with the role that convict laborers played in the development of the southern Appalachian mineral range in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee gives his work a wider significance.

Each of these states leased their convicts to private companies to establish extractive industry in the South. In turn, these companies used convicts' labor to develop vertically-integrated operations that produced fuel to power blast furnaces and rolling mills, while simultaneously crushing the region's nascent labor movement.

What accounts for the emergence of convict labor in the late 19th century New South? Lichtenstein argues that would-be boosters trying to develop the region's resources, transportation networks and internal markets faced an insurmountable barrier that blocked their schemes of economic development: the southern working class.

Southern industrialists chafed at the tendencies of freed slaves as well as white workers to combine wage labor with subsistence farming. Railroad bosses, trying to build regional railroad networks, went haywire when road crews downed their tools and went "back to the farm" when construction crossed over into the next county. "In harmony with the planters," Lichtenstein notes, "the single most common complaint voiced by southern industrialists was their inability to command a reliable, predictable labor force."

Negotiation was out of the question: Industrialists as well as plantation owners bitterly opposed the idea of collective bargaining with workers. "'You take the average built free man and put him on the public roads and work him hard for ten hours a day, and he will strike for higher wages,' claimed William L. Spoon, a road engineer. 'The convict', on the other hand, 'is forced to do regular work, and that regular work results in the upbuilding of the convict, the upbuilding of the public roads, and the upbuilding of the state.'''

In Worse than Slavery , David Oshinsky writes about a world of forced toil with which we are more familiar: the great agricultural slave labor camp of Parchman Farm in the Mississippi Delta. Actually, Oshinsky's canvas is much wider than Parchman itself. Indeed, he seeks to provide the reader with a historical explanation for the rise of convict labor that stretches back into the history of antebellum Mississippi.

The imposition of white supremacy and the end of Reconstruction in 1876, ushered in the convict labor system in Mississippi. "Reedemer" legislators the new fiscally-conservative lords of a one-party state were not particularly interested in reforming prisoners. Oshinsky notes that "They knew white taxpayers would never fund an expensive penitentiary whatever their worries about crime."

White supremacy in Mississippi meant all-white juries. Furthermore, "Blacks were rarely represented by counsel, and their testimony was often restricted to cases in which whites were not directly involved." Court fees were exorbitant and non-payment guilty or not meant a prison term. Oshinsky thus makes clear the connections between disenfranchisement, the onset of segregation, and the system of criminal "justice" for African Americans.

In One Dies, Get Another, Matthew J. Mancini provides a comparative analysis of the rise and fall of convict leasing in the South. Of the three books, his provides the best overall description of the actual camp conditions that convicts endured.

It is easy to forget that convict labor camps in the late 19th century were extremely mobile. "Sometimes these camps were picked up and moved several times a year," remarks the author. "A few literally moved on wheels. Their chief function was to house a labor force at the margins of the state's populated areas, but at important points of its economy its forests, farms, and nascent railroad lines."

This remarkable mobility was accomplished at the cost of the convicts' health and well being. Mancini quotes one particularly chilling contemporary account of the caged cattle cars that housed slave laborers: "These crowded cages, constructed with two layers of bunks so that it was impossible to stand erect in them, and provided with only one night-bucket, were filthy enough for sleeping purposes, but as living quarters from Saturday noon until Monday morning, they were unspeakably vile."

The authority of the camp boss was supreme and unquestioned. Guards were "young, inexperienced, poorly paid, and incompetent" to such an extent that it became a standard practice to employ convicts themselves known as trustees to guard fellow prisoners.

Mancini reminds us that from its very inception, the system of convict labor was built on corruption; its existence invited graft and entire southern states fell prey to powerful "Penitentiary Rings." Large employers gave under-the-table payments to state officials to ensure that they received their slaves at low contract prices.

Sheriffs in states like Alabama and Florida were paid fees for capturing supposedly "idle" Black workers under vagrancy laws. Law-enforcement officials became notoriously venal entrepreneurs more concerned with earning a "cut" of the convict labor racket than with any other part of their responsibilities.

The system of forced labor became so corrupt that it increasingly failed to deliver on two of its main promises: revenue generation for the state, and the maintenance of cheap labor for employers. Mancini quotes one Georgia social reformer, Rebecca Latimer Felton, who noted that the state's potential profit from convict leasing was obliterated due to "a gang of supernumerary officials, who are generally 'go-betweens,' [who] are paid nearly half [the contract amount]."

Today, the pushers of the new convict labor ideal, such as Morgan O. Reynolds, an economics professor at Texas A&M, claim that private and public sector "prison work" programs reform prisoners while providing relief to the nation's grotesquely overcrowded jails and prisons. In a presentation before the Congressional Subcommittee on Crime in September, 1997, Reynolds nostalgically invoked the convict-lease era of the 1880s as a time when prison labor was wildly profitable.

Reynolds also dismissed claims that prison-made goods undercut jobs and wages for "free" workers. Indeed, Reynolds argues that "Prison idleness, not activity, has silently eradicated demand for the outputs of freeworld workers."(!) Finally, Reynolds claims that "The proper way to mimic the free world of work as closely as possible is to encourage profit and loss employment of prison labor by private enterprise." Reynolds seductively offers everybody from small entrepreneurs to taxpayers a share of the take.

The history of convict labor in America, brought to life by these books under review, essentially warns us that if Professor Reynold's suggestions were ever implemented on a wide scale, the results would be catastrophic. It was indeed the profit motive in the convict lease system that made the institution so brutal and appalling in the first place.

The first era of profit-driven labor in America made the South's justice system the subject of international mockery. As prison labor began to turn profits, incarceration rates skyrocketed, and the relationship between crime and punishment took second place to the state's desire to generate revenues.

To reiterate: Corruption andor destructive monopolistic practices have always characterized the convict labor system in America. This is just as true in the 1590s as it was in the 1890s.

[Editor's Note: Paul Ortiz is currently a history Ph.D. candidate at Duke University. PLN edited his review for length. The original, uncut version (more than twice as long) originally appeared in JanFeb '98 issue of Against The Current (ATC). PLN publishes this edited version by permission of the author and ATC .

ATC extends a special introductory subscription offer to PLN readers: $15year. Send subscription orders to: Against the Current; 7012 Michigan Avenue; Detroit, MI 48210].

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