The End of Contract Labor and its Effects on the New York State Penal System in the Nineteenth Century

A political cartoon depicting a union representative holding legislation “to prohibit convict labor in state prisons” in front of an inmate.
A political cartoon depicting a union representative holding legislation “to prohibit convict labor in state prisons” in front of an inmate.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century the New York State Penal System underwent a fundamental change. Bowing to pressure chiefly from unions and heeding the findings of state-run special committees, the New York state legislature enacted a series of laws from 1888 to 1894 that phased out the lucrative prison contract labor system. With that came the end of nearly a century of exploitive, profitable prison labor that the Correctional Association of New York’s 1885 special committee report found to be “slave.” Without contract labor, prison officials scrambled to find ways to ward off the dreaded scourge of inmate idleness; American prison philosophy necessitated inmate industriousness and occupation and now inmates had nothing to do. By the end of the nineteenth century prisoners were filling orders from state institutions under the state-use system in addition to a haphazard collection of makeshift fixes: work slowdowns, road construction, parole, exercise, and internal repairs.Idealistically driven by reform and realistically guided by profits, the contract labor system, corrupt and abusive though it was, had firm, tangible goals. The New York state legislature took away a streamlined system and left little to replace it; the New York penal system, rudderless, with the ideal of reform through labor but with no way to systematically implement it, had no clear direction forward.
The End of Contract Labor

Labor unions had the most to lose in regard to prison contract labor, so naturally they opposed it. Prison contract labor undercut free labor wages and made competition difficult, if not impossible. Instead, unions favored the eventual successor to the contract labor system, the state-use system. Under this system, the prisoners manufactured goods to be used by the various departments of the New York state; prisons sold prison-made goods to the state rather than the public. This new state market allowed prisoners to carry out reforming work that benefited the state and paid their debt to society without creating conflicting interests between profit and reform within the prison system. The prison officials and contractors who profited from the system defended contract labor, but by the 1870s the labor unions succeeded in initiating the political review process that led to the eventual downfall of the contract labor system.
In the late 1870s and 1880s independent third parties, such as the Correctional Association of America, and commissions set up by the state, such as the New York State Commission on Prison Labor, began to investigate the contract labor system under and publish their findings. This reflected the growing pressure from labor unions and prison reformers to end the contract labor system. The investigations revealed a corrupt, profit-driven system that was “essentially unfavorable to reformation…[and that] treats the convict as a slave.” Prison contractors paid the inmates extra and brought in contraband to motivate them to work more, in order to increase their profits. Rather than reforming the convicts, the contract labor system “presents labor as part of the convict’s punishment.” Under the contract system, the goal of prison labor was profit, not reform; prisoners worked in poor conditions and guards punished them if they did not work hard or well enough. The political system turned on the contract labor system as its abuses became more widely known and politicians felt the clout of the labor unions.
Caving in to political pressure from labor unions, the New York state legislature gradually dismantled the contract labor system. The first step in the process occurred in 1888 with the Yates law, which restricted manufacturing to items that the state needed. The 1889 Fassett law banned contract labor entirely and severely limited the piece price system. The crowning achievement of the labor unions and the death blow to the contractors was the 1894 state constitutional amendment banning contract labor. Barring a massive political upheaval, this put an end to the contract labor system, although the constitution does explicitly promise to “provide for the occupation and employment of prisoners,” thus putting the onus on the state to supply work for prisoners that does not conflict with the unions, lest the lawmakers provoke the political wrath of the unions.

Attempts to Fill the Void

Replacing the contract system with the state-use system brought its own set of problems. The state had to walk a fine line: it had to provide meaningful work to the prisoners while avoiding conflict with existing industries. Beginning in 1886, and coinciding with the phasing out of the contract labor system, the New York state prison system ran a growing deficit. The state-use system lost money, as opposed to the highly profitable contract labor system. State officials had to buy goods from the prison system, which by design was not a competitive market. State law required state agencies to buy goods from prisons, which ranged from blankets and uniforms to printed books, but this income did not nearly replace the income from the contract system. Purchasers resented the arbitrary prices set by prison officials as well as the loss of purchasing power; purchasing goods from certain producers was a way for state officials to repay or give out favors. As such, state purchasers tried to avoid prison-made goods as much as possible and were quick to find fault with them when forced to buy them although they were not necessarily of inferior quality. While avoiding competition with other producers, the state-use system caused problems for the state officials who had to make do with prison goods as well as the prison officials who could no longer count on running a profitable prison.
Prison officials had to look for other means to occupy convicts to supplement the limited demand of the state. A convict who arrived at Sing Sing in February 1897, after the passage of the constitutional ban, observed that “no prisoner in the New York state prisons has had hard work to do” since the end of the contract labor system. To spread out the limited work, “no job is hurried nor is any man overtasked” as the wardens feared inmate idleness. The downfall to this lackadaisical approach to work is that it instills a bad work ethic in convicts, something the contract system was never guilty of. In addition to work slowdowns, prison officials tried road construction, exercise, prison repair, “indeterminate sentences, parole, and work release” to occupy the inmates, with varying degrees of success. Try as they might, wardens could never replicate the frenzied pace of the contract labor system.
The end of the prison contract system marked the end of the era of the prison as factory, but did not clearly mark the beginning of a new one. The end of the streamlined, profit-oriented system created a vacuum that wardens filled with a hodgepodge of solutions, none of which could replace the industrial pace of the prison as factory. While reformers, commissions, and unions found many faults with the previous system, the one which replaced it did not have the former’s sense of purpose. The zeal of the greedy contractor left, but no equally zealous reformers stepped in.