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An economic analysis of prison labor in the United States

Asatar P Bair, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The practice of using the labor of inmates in state and Federal prisons to produce commodities has expanded rapidly in recent years, paralleling the growth of the number of people incarcerated. Last year, prisoners in state and Federal institutions in the U.S. produced over $2 billion worth of commodities, both goods and services. In addition, prisoners performed various acts of labor such as food preparation, maintenance, laundry, and cleaning—forms of labor which, though necessary for the operation of every prison—do not produce commodities with market prices. A conservative estimate places the value of these goods and services at $9 billion. This dissertation analyzes the organization of prison labor and the increasingly important prison industries producing saleable commodities; in particular, we focus on the division between the products of prison labor consumed by the inmates and that appropriated from them by the prison authorities for other uses. This research yields the striking conclusion that the basic organization of prison labor in the U.S. today most closely resembles a form of slavery. Inmates are compelled by economic, cultural, and political forces to enter into this prison slavery, where the products of their labor are taken by others both inside and outside the prison. The effects of prison slavery on both the inmates who are enslaved as well as on American society as a whole are also explored. We find that as the prison has been transformed over the last 150 years by social movements, legal changes, and economic forces, so too has prison slavery. We also find that these social changes have allowed slavery to continue and even to expand in American society, despite the Civil War and the abolition of slavery outside prisons. The enslavement of inmates threatens the legitimacy of the criminal justice system, since slavery is widely seen as an ethically unacceptable form of labor. This loss of legitimacy may lead to increased criminal behavior.

Subject Area

Labor economics|Economic theory|Criminology

Recommended Citation

Bair, Asatar P, "An economic analysis of prison labor in the United States" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3152671.