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My Dad Went to San Quentin and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

Bob Tessler is just your average entrepreneur, out looking for that little something that makes the whole system tick: people who will work hard and make him rich. To “stay ahead of the competitors,” Bob needs workers who won’t talk back, take sick days, have babies, or make personal calls on company time. Where is a guy like Bob gonna find such good old-fashioned values? He tried Mexico, but the “corruption” was a big hassle. He could go to Malaysia, but that’s too far away, and too expensive for Bob’s little “literature assembly” and “data retrieval” firm called DPAS. Plus, Bob’s a hip guy; he cares; he wants to give back. So Bob opened shop in California’s oldest maximum security prison—San Quentin, a.k.a. La Pinta.

“We have a captive labor force,” says Bob innocently. “The whole thing is very profitable.” You bet it is! Plus the rent is almost free and Bob gets a fat tax break for being so socially responsible and hiring cons. There’s another reason DPAS—which enjoys such illustrious clients as Chevron, Macy’s, and Bank Of America—closed its information age maquiladora in Tecate, Mexico and came back home in ’92: flexibility. It’s the magic word these days. With “globalization” and that “space-time compression,” flexibility—that is, the freedom to fire and hire workers at will—is what business in the Nineties is all about.

“Now we can make minute changes in an order on the drop of a dime,” Bob exults. And, hey, that pleases the customers too! True, wages of $4.25 an hour (80 percent of which goes to the state), are higher in a U.S. prison than in Mexico, but overall the costs of production are lower and profits larger. By the way, Bob’s new work force doesn’t have the right to organize a union, strike, give interviews to the media (thanks to a recent crackdown by California’s governor), and has extremely limited access to community groups and other potential troublemakers. Bob’s not the only one helping out the low-lifes at San Quentin. There’s also the ironic entrant, an apparel firm called “Inkarcerated,” which makes exercise clothes, emblazoned with slogans like “My Dad Went to San Quentin and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt” and “Fitness is a Life Sentence.” If there’s a mistake in the printing, they just stamp “Parole Denied” on the item and ship it out anyway!

The only thing preventing DPAS and Inkarcerated from using even more labor at San Quentin is the massive wave of incarceration itself. Due to the ever more radical round-up of California’s poor, San Quentin has been transformed from a regular prison into Northern California’s carceral induction center. Thus, most San Quentin prisoners are “just passing through” on their way to some other, brand new island in the state’s far flung concrete archipelago.

But elsewhere there are plenty of convicts staying put for a very long time, and plenty of state legislators willing to serve ’em up like buckets of fish to the best-connected bidder. California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington lead the nation in leasing prison labor to private firms. In Nevada, prisoners already make waterbeds for Vinyl Products; restore cars for Imperial Palace; hand-assemble $500,000 Shelby Cobra road cars; build stretch limousines for Emerald Coach; and manufacture Bentley Nevada circuit boards for nuclear power plants. In Washington state, an article in The Stranger reports, a company called Exmark uses a “flexible” pool of prison laborers to package cool stuff ranging from Microsoft Windows 95 to Starbucks Coffee products to JanSport gear, and literature for telecommunications giant US WEST (which has recently cornered the market on prisoner calling cards—small world). In Vermont, prisoners book holiday reservations, as do their counterparts in Wisconsin, where prisoners were briefly used in nocturnal shelf-stocking at Toys R Us.

In Arizona, even the 109 residents of death row are now pulling their own weight on a prison-run vegetable farm. One of the positive side-effects of employing the condemned—as far as the governor’s press secretary is concerned—is that the inmates will now be too busy to file “frivolous lawsuits in attempts to circumvent their death sentences.”

The benefits to guys like Bob are even more obvious. During a strike by TWA flight attendants in the late 1980s, the ever-conscientious California Youth Authority helped soothe the labor dispute by providing inmates as TWA tickets bookers. The extra capacity allowed TWA to transfer ticket agents to flight attendant positions. According to one union official “this very definitely allowed the airline latitude in replacing strikers.” In other words, the state helped put those rebellious sky-bunnies back in their place.

The wonderful thing about prison labor is that its impact reverberates far beyond the prison gates. If prisoners will do data entry for Third World wages, why should an employer hire some slacker temp for 13 bucks an hour? And if the employer does decide to take the slacker temp route, why should they let the irritating bastard go to the bathroom whenever he wants when there is a labor force as well-behaved as prisoners just outside town? By making even the worst job seem like a gift, prison labor promises to put a smile on everyone’s face.

Some will say that the reappearance of prison labor reminds them a little too much of the 19th century South. Others, usually politically illiterate leftists, shriek: “The return of slavery!” But the fact of the matter is that prison labor is better than slavery. You can’t fire a slave, but when you no longer need an inmate’s services—hey, it’s back to the hole, as easy as that. Also, the state wouldn’t feed, clothe, house, or discipline your slave. But they will do all that for your inmate temp. It’s more like slavery lite—all the work with only half the overhead.

Besides, prison labor was never the enemy of progress that its opponents portray. Even in the post-Civil War “New South,” the heyday of convict leasing, Southern prison labor was not about saving the antebellum plantation economy. Instead, as Alex Lichtenstein has shown in Twice the Work of Free Labor, the vast majority (and politically most important segment) of convict labor was used to catapult Southern heavy industry from stagnant shallows of postwar disarray to fully modernized profitability. In Georgia, for example, more than 80 percent of leased convicts (and all but the very ill were leased) worked in factories, mines, and railroads. Only 14 percent or less did plantation work. In other words, convicts did not replace slaves.

What convicts did do was provide 19th-century Bobs with a very well behaved, shock-troop proletariat at a time of terrible social upheaval and labor unrest. Convicts built the South’s railroads, mined its coal, made its steel, graded its roads, and turned its pine barrens into turpentine. The clock-punching work culture of these modern industries was difficult for former farmers and agricultural slaves to get used to. So it really helped having guards and armed “trusties” there to, well, kill malingerers. If the state and its gun-toting invigilators hadn’t been there to bull-whip and beat convicts, the South might never have “passed the test” and graduated to full-fledged industrial capitalism.

It’s no coincidence that those were also the years of the worst union troublemaking in our history. Convicts were Southern entrepreneurs’ preferred strikebreakers and were often used to lock out pugnacious workers. This helped keep wages low, at about the one bowl of lard-flavored mash a day level. Of course it also infuriated a lot of people. On several occasions, the United Mine Workers attacked convict labor camps, and kept the imprisoned scabs out of the pits by force. During one strike in Tennessee, the UMW overran a convict camp, burned it to the ground, and set all the inmates loose (a problem we don’t have today, thanks to somnambulant unions and prisons surrounded by the new high-voltage electrical “death fence”).

Southern inmate labor also had wide-ranging, shall we say, “cultural influences.” While it’s true most convicts worked in factories and mines, the plantation system wasn’t entirely out of the picture. With the end of slavery, planters were faced with a huge problem—how to keep down the local majority, that is, the black people. Enter the racialized discourse of “black crime.” As soon as the Civil War was over, white Southerners went on a massive lock-up spree and 80 to 90 percent of the new prisoners were black. The new post-slavery judicial system served a dual purpose: It rounded up willing hands for the emerging industrial sector and at the same time intimidated rural African-Americans back into “traditional” social relations of “deference.” It was a win-win thing, Southern style.

Why does all this sound so familiar here at the fin of another siècle? If we discount numerology, we’re left with only political and economic explanations. Once again the state has embarked on a racist incarceration binge and begun subsidizing capital with prison labor. And—surprise! Once again the economy is undergoing a massive restructuring, in the aftermath of a traumatic crisis. Then it was the devastation of a nasty civil war and the shift to an industrial capitalist economy; today’s crisis was the 1970s nightmare of falling profitability, stagnant growth, inflation and intense international competition. Remember the OPEC price shocks of ’73 and ’79, the Sandinista revolution, all those post-Vietnam wildcat strikes? That stuff made life hard for entrepreneurs like Bob.

Reagan’s and Clinton’s rollback of America’s welfare state (granted, it was puny but it was big enough to give people ideas) was part of the answer, as was a serious ass-kicking for the Third World. But an ever-more disciplined domestic workforce with lower expectations is also crucial. There’s a lot of competition out there. Wages in Haiti and Honduras are so low you need a microscope to count ’em. But try telling that to workers back at home. That’s the reason guys like Bob and feisty startups like Inkarcerated need a little help from the state. Presto, prison labor, working its market magic at the thin edge of the wedge in emerging industries like software production, literature assembly, telemarketing, and exercise apparel.

And it’s not like the changes are over yet. The process of restructuring continues with the repeal of welfare, NAFTA, and the 1996 election’s coddling of big business. There’s going to be another blizzard of pink-slips before we get this all worked out. All of which is eventually—let’s face it—going to make a lot of people uppity. Criminal justice can help to solve the problem, regulating both bodies and prices: You get the unemployed white guys to guard the unemployed African-American and Latino guys. And the really lucky members of both groups get to star in reruns of Cops and American Prison Guard.

Convict labor is not archaic, but cutting edge; not incongruous with “the free market,” but capitalism’s tool of choice. And guys like Bob are leading the way. They aren’t just making gadgets, they’re making a bright new future for all of us. A future free of whining unions and spoiled workers; a future of diligence, punctuality, gratitude. A future with a smart-ass “Parole Denied” stamped on its face.