In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Prison Labor

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of the Condition of Prison Labor across the United States
  • Connections between Prison Labor and Slavery in the United States
  • Political Economy of Prison Labor
  • International and Comparative Perspectives
  • Privatizing Prisons, Privatizing Prison Labor
  • Effects of Prison Labor on the Broader Economy
  • Prison Work Experiences
  • Prisoners Reentering the Workforce

Criminology Prison Labor
Lindsey Raisa Feldman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0236


Prison labor is a contested topic because it raises various questions: What role does prison labor serve in reaching the goals of prison systems? Can prison labor ever be voluntary, or is it always an act of state coercion? For some there is no question that prison labor is exploitative, because its existence draws directly from legacies of slavery or penal colonization and because prison conditions have become so inhumane that any labor that occurs in this space is inherently exploitative. The connection between prison labor and slavery is especially strong in the United States, as the country’s rapid rise in incarceration and its continued use of prison labor unevenly impacts people of color. For others, prison labor is a logical aspect of incarceration, helping defray costs of a person’s engagement with the judicial system. However, many 21st-century studies have challenged this perspective, showing that it is more cost-effective to avoid incarceration rather than imprisoning people and then attempting to make up for the costs. Another perspective is that prison labor can be beneficial for incarcerated people, especially if the labor is skilled or includes vocational training, as it may serve to rehabilitate prisoners and prepare them for work on the outside. This article provides readers with both qualitative and quantitative analyses of these varying viewpoints. Prison labor must also be analyzed at both the micro and macro levels. It simultaneously affects individuals and entire societies; the work being conducted by prisoners has daily implications and meanings for the prisoners themselves, while also having an impact on local and global market forces. In order to more fully understand the topic of prison labor, it is necessary to study its history as well as its current form. The trajectory of a particular society’s prison labor policies is indicative of their ideologies of punishment and rehabilitation. This article provides a representative sample of the multifaceted analyses of prison labor. It includes citations on the history of prison labor and its ties to slavery and colonization, the political economy of prison labor and its ideological undercurrents, the role and consequences of prison labor across the world, the changing face of prison labor as it becomes increasingly privatized, the impact of prison labor on larger market and labor forces, the experiences of prison labor from the perspective of incarcerated people, and the impact that working in prison has on a person’s success in reentering society. These multiple entry points into the study of prison labor will help to unfold the complex role that prison labor plays both inside of prison and in broader socioeconomic contexts. The following sections cover the literature on those serving time in correctional institutions for felony charges in the United States. With this in mind, it is important to remember that pre-trial detainees can and do work in jails across the country, although literature in this bibliography is limited to labor in state, federal, and private prisons.

General Overviews of the Condition of Prison Labor across the United States

The citations here represent broad overviews of prison labor, as well as key theoretical texts that have laid the foundation for current literature on this topic. Although prison labor has been discussed in some regard for several centuries, the modern era of incarceration beginning in the 1970s saw the rise of in-depth analyses of how labor shapes ideologies of retribution and rehabilitation. Foucault 1977 is the oldest text in this section but also the most philosophically foundational for modern understandings of punishment and of the role that prison labor plays in managing incarcerated people. Building on this foundation, Wacquant 2009 and Western and Pettit 2010 offer further theoretical overviews of the way prisons and the modern economy are inextricably linked. Davis 2003 describes the long-standing racial implications of prisons and prison labor, while offering abolitionist solutions to end the prison industrial complex. Bair 2008 and Herivel and Wright 2003 analyze the ideologies that have created the current social and economic climate in which prison labor has become commonplace. Adding a broader historical context, LeBaron 2012 provides a socioeconomic timeline of the role that prison labor has played in the construction of the modern US economy.

  • Bair, Asatar. 2008. Prison labor in the United States. New York: Routledge.

    Offers an ethnographic examination of modern prison labor in the United States. Presents a Marxist framework to describe how prisoners’ labor is extracted by the prison system. This book can be read by students and scholars needing a comprehensive socioeconomic overview of modern prison labor.

  • Davis, Angela. 2003. Are prisons obsolete? New York: Seven Stories.

    Describes the entrenched racism of the US prison system, including its use of prison labor from the convict-lease system to 21st-century work practices. The book offers a call for penal abolition, describing the many previous social movements to abolish exploitative practices and how lessons can be learned and applied to decarceration in America.

  • Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and punish. New York: Random House.

    A necessity for social scientists wanting to understand the ideological underpinnings of modern forms of punishment. Describes prison, and prison labor, as one way that society produces docile bodies. This text has guided many of the theoretical frameworks of social scientists studying prison labor in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

  • Herivel, Tara, and Paul Wright, eds. 2003. Prison nation: The warehousing of America’s poor. New York: Routledge.

    Details the rise of the “Prison Industrial Complex,” or the complex interconnections between capitalism, prison regimes, and corporate welfare. Foundational readings for both researchers and students.

  • Lebaron, Genevieve. 2012. Rethinking prison labor: Social discipline and the state in historical perspective. Journal of Labor and Society 15.3: 327–351.

    Draws a clear connection between US economic and political policies and prison labor. Places contemporary trends of prison labor within a historical framework of social inequality. Useful for scholars interested in the connection between historical precedents and modern examples of prison labor in US society.

  • Wacquant, Loic. 2009. Prisons of poverty. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

    A widely read book that examines how poverty has become criminalized in the neoliberal era. Offers evidence that many Western governments have come to depend on incarcerated people, many of whom are from lower socioeconomic classes, to further their market-oriented goals. This book offers scholars a theoretical link between neoliberalism, crime, and labor.

  • Western, Bruce, and Becky Pettit. 2010. Incarceration and social inequality. Daedalus 139.3: 8–19.

    DOI: 10.1162/DAED_a_00019

    Offers students and researchers a general overview of the link between prison and socioeconomic inequality. Examines how a person’s engagement with the penal system exacerbates their access to social and economic resources intergenerationally.

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