Saturday, July 19, 2003

Origins and Futures (2003)



A   C ON C I S E    P R I M E R   D E A L I N G   W I T H   T H E

Foundations   and   motivations   of   the   Prison   System   of

T H E   S T A T E   O F   C O N N E C T I C U T 

B O T H    M Y T H O L O G I C A L    &    A C T U A L

With special emphasis placed upon the topics of

R A C I S M   &   C A P I T A L I S T I C   G A I N

A s   a n   I m p e t u s   f o r   p u b l i c   p o l i c y .


…But we Pray to god that he would Send forth his Good Spirit into your harts and Remind you of your Duty and make you the Instermints of Binding up the Brokenharted and of Proclaiming Liberty to the captives and the opening of the Prison to them that are Bound…

-Petition of 1780 by slaves for the abolition of slavery in Connecticut.

He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners…
-Isaiah 61:1

The prison system of our nation was born of capitalistic intentions. In fact, if you look closely, it is more than apparent that the prison system of today is nothing more than the evolutionary spin-off of the prohibited practice of slavery. Much of our criminal law, though marketed as policy designed to protect our nation’s citizenry, is at its core both racist and capitalistic
Look at the statistics, and you’ll see that a considerably disproportionate number of blacks are behind bars, you’ll see that the structuring of our state’s drug sentencing laws are designed to penalize blacks and other minorities more drastically than whites. The most glaring examples of this are due largely to “war on drugs,” which concentrates greatly on urban areas heavily populated by minority groups, despite the fact that much drug use occurs predominantly in suburban white areas.
Look past the smoke and mirrors, the political marketing and “tough on crime” rhetoric being heaved by our nation’s political right and “left,” and one can easily see there is currently a committed effort, on the parts of many politicians and private industry economists, to return the prison system to the dollar generating enterprise it was in the 1800s. Unfortunately, those in favor of such restructuring pay little mind to the atrocious conditions of the earlier system, and the human cost necessary to yield such profits.
However, more than simply attempting to turn the overcrowding crisis into a self-sustaining endeavor, and more optimistically, a profit generating enterprise, in some lights it actually appears that there may be an active attempt by some to further foster the endemic prison-overcrowding crisis in order to gain both public support for such change as well as create a greater prison work-force.


An August 2001 article from the National Center for Policy Analysis’ titled “Prisoners Spell Dollars for Communities” cites some interesting ways in which some communities have been able to capitalize on the recent prison construction boom:

Most federal formula-grant programs…are based at least partially on census numbers—and prisoners are counted just like everyone else. Some states…also use census statistics to parcel out state tax revenues and other funds. Never mind the fact that the incarcerated get little benefit from the roads, parks and services the grants pay for.[1]

The article goes on to explain how some communities have used prison populations to boost their total population numbers to better qualify for grants, in some small communities the addition of prison populations more than doubled their total population counts. The article cites other “benefits” created by building prisons in some communities:

Also prisoners have little or no income, they depress per capita wages. This makes prison-hosting towns eligible for additional cash from federal and state anti-poverty programs…Heavily minority inner cities lose government funds when their residents are transferred to rural communities and locked up. Furthermore, inmates are counted for legislative apportionment and redistricting—even though they can’t vote. So in states such as New York, the prison boom has helped to shift political muscle from minority-dominated inner cities to rural areas dominated by whites.1

Taking facts such as this into consideration, it becomes clear that if the corrections-industrial complex could effectively formulate a self-sufficient prison system and foster pre-existent racist trends in law enforcement, the benefits for politicians and the country’s economic elite continue to compound themselves. A 1999 Perspective magazine articles addresses this prospect:

Prison Labor is inherently prone to political corruption. On the most basic level, it produces a profit incentive for politicians to build prisons, increase arrests, and extend sentences. Riding the “tough on crime” attitude in America and a public demand to cut prisoner benefits and programs, companies that utilize prison labor are fueling the prison boom in the United States. This new aspect of the prison-industrial complex show itself in many examples: questionable campaign contributions, political favors, and the movement of individuals back and forth from political posts to managerial posts in a prison industry.[2]


Look at the promotional pamphlets distributed at the gates of Old Newgate Prison State Park and you’ll see that the myths of three hundred years ago still live to this day:

Enter…into the world of convicted horse thieves, counterfeiters, and murderers…. At night prisoners were confined underground in an abandoned copper mine. During the day they labored within these stone walls to earn their keep.[3]

An older Promotional Pamphlet from the 1980s is even further laden with evident untruths:

Prisoners were kept in the mine at night, and in total darkness. Yet, some of the inmates preferred this to the cells above ground as it enabled them to move about more freely and to talk to other prisoners…[4]

The true story of Newgate Prison is a grim account of the capitalistic motivations behind the inception of America’s modern Prison System, which paved the way for programs involving prison labor, including so-called “prisoner leasing” for centuries to come.
The Newgate mines (originally called Simsbury copper mine) were first mined in 1707, and were initially owned by private landowners, including a governor of Massachusetts. But soon the private enterprise proved too costly to continue.5 Soon the mines came into the ownership of the Colony of Connecticut.
The colony of Connecticut first used Newgate as a prison in December of 1773, and in October of 1776, Newgate became the first state prison in the newly established United States of America. Prior to the use of Newgate, prison sentences as punishment were virtually non-existent in the New World and Europe.
Prison was where the accused awaited trial. Generally, punishments were administered in the form of corporal or capital punishment, public humiliation, or the imposing of a monetary fine. Floggings, disfigurement, branding, were all accepted forms of physical punishment. Public humiliation was achieved by utilizing the stocks or pillory.[5] However, someone must have realized that a working prisoner is worth more than a dead or wounded one.
Well before Newgate’s inauguration as a prison, the mining enterprise had proved unprofitable. Connecticut, having a relatively small number of slaves, found it difficult to find employees to mine for the local smiths. A Connecticut legislative committee suggested that sentenced criminals be sent to the mines, instead of imposing traditional forms of punishment. In 1773, the first inmate descended into the mine. [6]

[Newgate] marks a radical departure in punishment. In many respects it foreshadows what is to come…Newgate houses both violent and non-violent offenders, and the only goal of punishment is retribution…there are no cells; men women and children are all thrown together… The prison does not generate enough money through copper-mining and tries other moneymaking ventures…Nothing works…Eventually, it becomes too expensive to maintain and is replaced by a new institution in Wethersfield.[7]

Eventually, it seems, even with the newly created free labor force, Newgate lacked the ability to create profits. The legislature’s experiment had backfired, but by now the justice systems of both the state and country had come to regard lengthy prison sentences as the preferred form of punishment.

The opening of the Wethersfield State Prison in September of 1827 marked another landmark in the evolution of Connecticut’s prison system. Modeled after the newly designed “Auburn System” of the then considered state-of-the-art Auburn prison in New York State, Wethersfield represented a departure from the slapdash organization of Newgate.
The Auburn System was itself a deviation from the so-called Pennsylvania System, which was formulated around the belief that Solitary Confinement was the only effective form of rehabilitation, as it forced inmates to “repent their sins and consider their deviant acts.”2 Under this system, inmates labored alone in their cells, however this type of prison industry soon proved exceptionally unprofitable. A similar experiment performed at Auburn prison in New York State, proved exceptionally disastrous and was deemed an unequivocal failure as many of the inmates became insane from their confinement.
The system, for which Auburn eventually became known, moved away from solitary confinement. However, though the inmates ate and worked together, they were not allowed to ever look at or speak with one another. If they broke the rules they were physically punished.2 The “military-like model” was instituted not only to “keep prisoners in-line” but also to provide for more profitable and efficient prison-industry.
This system, the foundation for Connecticut’s Wethersfield Prison, proved less expensive than the Pennsylvania system, and state’s began to see greater profits being made from their prison enterprises; however, most prison industries still did not make enough money to cover the expenses of running the prison as a whole.
The mid to late 1800s marked another dramatic change in the way prisons were run. This period provides the most visible examples of states capitalizing on prison-labor, as well as the most blatant role of racism in the history of the prison-industrial complex thus far.

Following the civil war, the South found itself in dire need to replace the former workforce of newly emancipated slaves. No longer able to legally steal/breed a captive labor force, Southerners needed to come up with new ways of supplying themselves with cheap labor. Up until then, states had been unable to successfully utilize prison-labor making the prison system self sufficient, let alone achieving their ultimate goals of transforming the prison system into a profit generating enterprise. The administrative costs had continually eclipsed the money made from prison-industries.
But at this point, the prison system and private industry began to coordinate their efforts, creating the first profitable prison-industries in history. The practice became know as “prison leasing.”

Article XIII, Section 1 of the constitution of the United States asserts that “Neither slavery not involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States…” There is the loophole. Contrary to popular belief, slavery is still legal in the United States of America; there are now simply conditions.
In a November 1995 article written by Pete Dupont, former governor of Delaware (a state which hosted public whippings as a form of legal punishment up until the 1950s), and then Policy Chairman for the National Center for Policy Analysis, the author laments the good old days of a profit yielding prison system.

It was not always this way. In the last century, prisons earned a major part of their daily cost by leasing convict labor to private employers. In 1885, three-fourths of prison inmates were involved in productive labor, the majority working for private employers under contract and leasing arrangements.[8]

But Dupont gives little insight as to the specifics of the prison-leasing movement of the 1800s. This practice, which is explored more in Section III of this essay, was little more than a circumnavigation of the banning of slavery by the emancipation proclamation.
In prison leasing, states gave up total control of its inmate population to the highest bidder. This practice was especially popular in the southern areas of this country where former slave owners now had no way running their businesses with the luxury of a cheap labor force. After the institution of prison leasing, states had nothing to lose by committing another prisoner to incarceration, on the contrary it had everything to gain. More prisoners meant more profits, and since prisons were then just as racially imbalanced as they are today, one more prisoner for the most part meant one less free Negro.

Unfortunately, the crime of which many of these neo-slaves of the 1800s had been convicted of was simply being black. Many convictions were based upon “crimes” as dubious as “vagrancy.” This racist trend continues in many ways today with a racially biased law enforcement community, and laws unfairly weighed against minorities.
But the halcyon days of comfortable prison profiteering eventually came to and end during the great depression. Due to pressures from labor union““s and competing businesses, Congress implements laws, which made it more difficult for states and private industries to profit from prison labor. For the following forty years, prisoners would labor for government agencies and non-profits exclusively (See section II. History). However, by the 1980s most of these laws had been rescinded and the country began to move back toward the “slaves of the state” ideologies of the 1880s.[9]
Today, proponents of prison labor include business leaders and corrections administrators. The latter is no surprise when folks like Pete Dupont state that legislation should “Let prisons ‘profit’ from accepting these contracts. Provide monetary incentives to prisons and their wardens for leading their institutions to self-sufficiency.”1 As for the business leaders, there is little doubt as to what their motivations are.
By implementing prison labor, private businesses profit in a number of ways. The voluminous NCPA report, “Factories Behind Bars,” explains the many benefits for private industries that utilize prison labor. The study explains that privately run prison industries boast greater productivity levels than those run by the state.
The study shows how states can profit from privately run prison labor. The study explains that with an average wage of $5.00 an hour, each prisoner can generate an income of about $10,000 per year, most of which will go back to the state.[10]

The study also mentions “polls show that a majority of business leaders, who might be expected to object to prison industries as unfair competition, actually favor such programs.” Yet there is no explanation offered as to why they are in favor of the programs. Here are some probable reasons why they are:

  • Prison labor is not protected by federal safety and health standards, nor is it covered by National Labor Relations policies.

  • Private industries are spared the expenses of health, unemployment, and workers compensation benefits, and they are free to hire and fire inmate employees at will, with none of the messy red tape.

  • By utilizing prison labor, corporations needed pay competitive wages to their inmate employees (for detailed examples of this fact see APENDIX A).

  • Prisoners cannot organize politically or unionize.

But, for the most part, prison labor does not usually compete with our domestic industries; rather prison labor is usually composed of the work most companies already complete in other nations. Principally, prison labor competes with third-world sweatshops (See APPENDIX A).
Prison researchers have stated that most inmates will be hard pressed to find work on the “outside” in the same areas in which they had worked while in prison.
“A garment sewer in prison has little to look forward to in the garment industry outside the walls, beside low wage and exploitation; never mind that most garment shops are located overseas.”[11]
The Perspectives Magazine article agrees: “…while prison labor mimics working conditions in the developing world and can compete with overseas production, the fields in which the inmates are gaining experience may not hold jobs for them on the American market once they leave.”2
It is statements like these that, if true, effectively take the wind out of any claims of rehabilitative benefit such working environments will bequeath an ex-prisoner (file “rehabilitation” along with “tough on crime” under “sounds good”).
Another benefit companies stand to gain by moving operations out of the developing world and into American prisons is that they will then qualify to place the desirable “Made in U.S.A.” label on their products. As one corporate bigwig mentioned, “we’re employing Americans, they just happen to be incarcerated.”8
In fact, some former New Jersey inmates revealed that their duties while working in a prison shop included removing Honduran tags in garments and replacing them with ones that read “Made in USA.”8

Though promising to private industry, the NCPA study demonstrates some of the problems private businesses might encounter while utilizing prison labor:

One of the difficulties of creating jobs for prisoners is that many of them are illiterate or semiliterate, or have low IQs, but champions of inmate labor are confident such jobs could be created. The federal system has the best prospects for high rates of payback because many of the prisoners are there for crimes typically committed by more intelligent criminals like counterfeiting, kidnapping and drug smuggling.5

There is no mention in the study of educating these illiterate prisoners, for example, teaching them to read, which may be a necessary aspect of true rehabilitation. I think the reference to “more intelligent criminals” speaks for itself.

The NCPA study also explains that “Prisoners Overwhelmingly Prefer Work to the Tedium of Prison Life.” This statement brings up an interesting point. It is the policy of the Connecticut DOC that any inmate who is offered a job in the prison must accept the job or otherwise be confined to a segregation unit, i.e. solitary confinement. As one article put it “Boredom is a powerful motivator in prison.”7 A possible hypothesis would be that prison jobs do not simply offer a break from the tedium of “prison life” (see 23 hour lockdown in closet sized cells), but rather the tedious nature of life in prison is designed to serve as motivation to get prisoners to work. Looked at from this perspective, the policy of confinement to cells becomes little more than a cunningly subtle psychological whip, as motivating as any physical lashing.


o    In 1998, MicroJet paid convict machinists only $7 per hour, as compared with the $30 per hour they would have had to have paid union machinists. Also, MicroJet received a 56,000 square foot building rent free with Washington State footing the maintenance fees. [12]

o    Lockhart Technologies, Inc. (manufacturer of circuit boards for IBM, Compaq, and Dell) closed its Austin, Texas plant and moved operations to a Texas prison run by Private Prison giant Wackenhut Corp. without consulting with organized labor. Joe Gunn, president of Texas AFL-CIO called the move “absolute indentured slavery. [Wackenhut] puts people to work under conditions we criticize China for.” But Lockhart defended itself by stating that there was no union in the county in which the prison was located. 9

o    Escrod Industries moved to South Carolina only after it dropped its plans to operate out of Mexico. The reason for the change was that Mexican labor could not compete in cost with American prison labor. South Carolina had further sweetened the deal by granting the company a $250,000 “equipment subsidy” and offering industrial space at below market rates.2

o    Oregon officials urged Nike (a company notorious for its use of sweatshop labor) to relocate its Indonesia operations into Oregon Prisons, stating, “We can offer competitive prison labor.”8

o    Jostens, Inc. a company that manufactures graduation gowns, employed female inmates to perform duties liked to the production work usually carried out in third-world countries. One company executive was quoted as saying, “Keep it simple- put the least complex sewing jobs you have inside the prison…”2

o    New Jersey inmates revealed that their duties while working in a prison shop included removing Honduran tags in garments and replacing them with ones that read “Made in USA.”8

[1] Pete Dupont, NCPA: “Prisoners Spell Dollars for Communities”. 8.9.01.
[2] Josh Levin, “Uncle Tom’s cell: Prison labor gives a market face to an old idea—slavery” Perspective Magazine Feb. 1999.
[3] New-Gate Prison & Copper Mine.  Connecticut Historical Commission. (2003?)
[4] Old New-Gate Prison and Copper Mine. Connecticut Historical Commission. (1980s?)
[5] History of Prisons.
[6] Prison Leasing, Prison Industry and the work ethic.
[7]  The Old Newgate Prison, Connecticut. 360degrees.
[8] National Center for Policy Analysis: “Should Prisoners be Allowed to Work?” 11.29.95.
[9] The Costal Post, July 1998: “Prison Labor: Crime Still Doesn’t Pay”
[10] National Center For Policy Analysis: “Factories Behind Bars”
[11] Karen Miller, “Prison Labor: Some facts and Issues” 2000.

No comments:

Post a Comment