Tag Archives: James Berrigan

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

Labor Unions and Prison Labor during the Nineteenth Century

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During the nineteenth century labor unions did not oppose prison labor in general, but rather the highly competitive contract labor system which allowed prison labor contractors to undercut the prices of free labor due to prison labor’s lower cost. New York’s prisons functioned as factories until 1894, when a constitutional ban ended the lucrative prison contract labor system. Under the contract system, contractors paid the prison for the use of prison labor and supplied the prisoners with work. Prison contractors bid on the same contracts as free labor, but prison contractors undercut the prices due to the lower cost of prison labor. This put downward pressure on the wages of free laborers in order to remain competitive, and drove certain industries out of the state entirely, as they could not compete. On moral grounds, labor unions opposed aspects of the contract labor system which they saw as exploitive and contrary to reform; prisons sold prison labor at below-market wages, which labor unions opposed as it outcompeted free labor.

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Sing Sing as a Factory during the Nineteenth Century

Three of the fundamental goals of the nineteenth century American penitentiary were the convict’s moral reformation, his employment, and the economic self-sufficiency of the penitentiary; in practice these goals conflicted and at Sing Sing the latter two took precedence over the former. Sing Sing during the nineteenth century practiced a version of the Auburn prison system corrupted by contractors incentivized by profits and prisoners who beat the system. During the day prisoners would work together in a congregate factory setting while at night they were separated and to be silent. In reality silence was haphazardly enforced and privileged or well-connected prisoners were able to avoid the harsh application of prison discipline. The factory labor system stripped away Sing Sing’s reform-oriented mission to reveal a single-minded pursuit of profits. Sing Sing as a penitentiary was punitive rather than penitent, and “treat[ed] the convict as a slave” who the wardens, superintendents, and contractors cynically forced to work in the pursuit of profits. Prison guards tortured prisoners who did not work satisfactorily; prisoners worked long hours at grueling labor; Sing Sing was a nineteenth century industrial plantation. Continue reading Sing Sing as a Factory during the Nineteenth Century

American Prison Factory Systems during the Nineteenth Century

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American Prison Factory Systems during the Nineteenth Century
Prisoners are a capitalist’s ideal labor force: they cannot change jobs, unionize, or move. The prison as a factory serves as a workplace where the boss has complete control over his workers. Strict discipline, enforced by brutal punishment unthinkable outside of prison, enabled Sing Sing and other prisons run on the Auburn system to function as productive factories. In 1897, according to Sing Sing’s Warden Sage, “[t]here is nothing more efficacious as work for keeping up the spirits of convicts and preserving discipline…those of the convicts who are idle become restless and quarrelsome, with a tendency to subordination.” Reformers and prison officials agreed that productive work was an essential key to reforming a prisoner; businessmen were more than happy to supply that work in the form of a contract system in which contractors paid the prison below-market wages for prisoner labor. Sing Sing’s factory system during the nineteenth century was a perversion of the Auburn system and exploited by businessmen at the expense of the prisoners, taxpayers, and factory workers. The rise of the Auburn system and the decline of the Pennsylvania system suggests that prison officials were willing to compromise their reform-minded intentions in order to maximize the efficiency of prison labor and create a prison system that paid for itself. The Auburn System implicitly acknowledges the effectiveness of the Pennsylvania system by incorporating as much of the Pennsylvania system’s use of silence and isolation as possible; the notable exception, however, is the Auburn system’s use of industrial factory-style labor methods, rather than the Pennsylvania system’s solitary craft-style system. The Auburn System allows contractors to harness prison labor in a lucrative factory setting, but at the expense of convict rehabilitation.  Continue reading American Prison Factory Systems during the Nineteenth Century