Is Prison Labor the Updated Version of Slavery?

(c) Josh Sager – August 2011

In recent years, the right wing movement has pushed for increased privatization in many areas formerly run by the public sector; prisons and public maintenance are two of the public service areas which have received particular focus during the right wing push to privatize. There is a very disturbing situation emerging in US prisons where prisons (particularly private prisons) are starting or expanding commercial prison work programs.

There is nothing inherently wrong with prison work programs; in fact, they can actually be beneficial to both the inmates and the guards. Inmates who have something to occupy their time don’t cause as much trouble because they are focused on something constructive rather than the constant ennui of imprisonment. In addition to reducing discipline problems in the prisons, trade programs where prisoners learn a craft while working can allow prisoners to find productive employment after their release. While vocational work programs can actually be beneficial to prisoners, commercial prison labor can sometimes become harmful.

Prison labor can unfortunately have very damaging effects when it is combined with some corporatist practices—practices that have become prevalent in some areas of the American government. Politicians have become increasingly bought by corporate lobbyists, leading to policy decisions designed to help corporations. As corporations are completely amoral and exist solely to make a profit, most corporations will maximize profit and minimize expense regardless of the social effect of their actions. In order to increase its market-share, prison corporations will use their influence on politicians to promote “tough on crime” legislation and stricter sentencing.

Prison labor allows for-profit prisons to reap a massive profit, particularly once they capture the local government. If a corporation can in-source labor to a prison (or be co-owned by a prison) and decrease the cost of labor to nearly nothing, their profits will go up. A decrease in manufacturing costs allows for an increase in profits—allowing corporate expansion and increased executive pay. Both private prisons and corporations which utilize prison labor benefit from these programs, but the average citizen is turned into nothing more than a commodity to be imprisoned and exploited.

Prisons are a public service and their goal should be punishment or rehabilitation, not profit. Once there is a corporation pulling the strings, profit eclipses all other goals and prison labor comes dangerously close to slave labor. When politicians are bought by corporations, they will help the corporation make money. Legislative initiatives–such as increasing criminal charges for minor offenses, expanding mandatory sentencing laws, and criminalizing more actions–can increase the number of people imprisoned, thus giving a larger workforce to the prison utilizing corporation.

A combination of corporatism, private prisons, and prison labor leads to a situation where the justice system serves to force people into imprisoned employment at no pay. Involuntary servitude without pay is the very definition of slavery. The prison labor situation in the USA sets up perverse incentives and corrupts the entire criminal justice system.

Search for the “Kids for Cash” scandal on Google to see the most egregious example of corporate infiltration into the justice system I have ever seen. Several judges in Pennsylvania were paid by private prisons to send innocent children to jail. While the profit motive found in this case was based in prison occupancy rather than prison labor, the situations are parallel because the motivation remains the same: When putting more people in jail increases corporate profits, these corporations will attempt to increase the imprisonment rate in order to increase profit.

Justice should not have a profit motive, but rather be an end unto itself.

For additional information, watch this video:

3 thoughts on “Is Prison Labor the Updated Version of Slavery?

  1. Hi, I am doing a reflective journal on the prison system for university. I really like your comic above. If I reference this site and your name etc would it be okay for me to put into my assessment. It’s not getting published or anything. It’s just for school


    • I am sorry but I don’t have those kind of rights for the cartoon. If you want to use it, you are going to need to go to and buy rights to it from them.

      If this is just a personal thing and you don’t need to worry about copyright issues, please go ahead and use it, but you need to remember that any official use needs to be avoided.


  2. Pingback: Infographic: Private Prison Injustice | The Progressive Cynic

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