Published as part of Verso's Haymarket Series in 1996, Alex Lichtenstein's Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South was the first book-length history of the convict-lease and chain gang systems of penal servitude in the Southern United States. Focusing on Georgia in the years between Reconstruction and the Great Depression, Lichtenstein traces the interwoven development of the region's notoriously brutal carceral forms and it's industrial and commercial expansion. "The postbellum history of Georgia's penal system," Lichenstein writes, "offers a clear illustration of how convict labor helped forge the peculiar New South 'Bourbon' political alliance, by accommodating the labor needs of an emerging class of industrialists without eroding the racial domination essential to planters."
In the text below, the book's epilogue, Lichtenstein expands on his findings in a broader historical consideration of the relation between coerced labor and economic development.
A Georgia road gang in Rockdale County in 1909, shortly after the state abolished convict leasing. (Vanishing Georgia Collection, Georgia Department of Archives and History).
“There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” –Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History”1
Diverse forms of forced labor have been found in many societies, under many conditions. Slavery and penal labor both existed in the ancient world. Serfdom shaped much of the character of premodern European social relations, and persisted well into the nineteenth century in Eastern Europe and Russia. As European societies shook off the last vestiges of feudalism, forced labor was carried to the New World, in a vast arc encompassing both the highlands and plantations of the Americas. In colonial Africa as well, European domination brought with it forms of coercive labor new to a continent that had long known indigenous slavery; and labor relations in industrialized South Africa under apartheid were clearly shaped by colonial strategies of labor extraction up until yesterday. Finally, Stalin's Gulag, and the Nazi labor and extermination camps, stand as horrific examples of forced labor in the modern world.
Bound labor has not always been associated with the fully developed chattel slavery oriented toward market production that gave the antebellum American South, for example, a distinctive character. In various guises this form of labor has both preceded and followed in the wake of chattel slavery. Forced labor has even developed in societies where the New World's peculiar form of ownership of one person by another, rationalized by bourgeois property relations, was unknown. Consistent features of this form of labor have included the collusion of the state, penal servitude as an enforcer of work, and intensification and expansion during periods of rapid economic development or transformation.
Coercive labor relations frequently aim to control a population reluctant to enter wage labor relations freely, and encourage the consequent proletarianization of these recalcitrant recruits to the “free” labor market. The beneficiaries of this process often justify its harshness as necessary and efficacious discipline for this emergent working class. In advanced societies such labor coercion has even been legitimized by resort to the ultimate expression of capitalist free labor relations, the contract. And when not controlled by individuals, forced labor has frequently been concentrated by the state on public works — pyramids, waterworks, and roadways.
Involuntary servitude has also been reserved as the fate for conquered combatants in war, for indigenous peoples in the New World and Africa, and for races deemed "inferior” by Europeans (and those of European descent) or Aryans. Its victims include both “enemies of the people,” and those declared "criminal” by a judicial rationale derived from enlightenment principles and bourgeois social relations. Everywhere, as the criminologist Thorsten Sellin has argued, slavery and punishment have been an inseparable dyad, in advanced as well as primitive societies. Indeed, as the “right” for individuals freely to dispose of their labor power as they saw fit (within the dictates of the market) increasingly came to define capitalist social relations, as it began to in the New South, the revocation of that right became the ultimate sanction. In putatively “modern” societies, where citizens value the rule of law, that right can only be limited by legal procedures restrained by, for example, constitutional legality. The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution expresses this bargain succinctly. But wherever the historical legacy of racialism has been conjoined to the identification of penal sanction with enslavement, as it was in the postbellum South, and really in the United States as a whole, the results for a society's vision of equality and labor have been profoundly destructive. This has been true even — perhaps especially — when forced labor contributed to economic development.2
One of the persistent themes of American history has been an abiding faith in progress and development; and one of the persistent themes of southern history has been the necessity for federal intervention to extend the benefits of progress to the nation's less "developed” region. Whether carried out by the Union Army, carpetbaggers, northern capital, technocratic "experts,” the judiciary, or, today, the forces of postindustrial economic change, this process has frequently revolved around the inseparable issues of labor and race. Free labor triumphed over slavery in the Civil War, but in their effort to reshape the South it was the original prophets of a New South, the Reconstructionists, who fastened the convict-lease upon the region's former bondspeople, as Hoke Smith took pains to remind the legislature when his administration finally abolished the system in Georgia.3 And it was those ersatz defenders of southern tradition, the Redeemers, who invited northern capital to help them reap the benefits of forced labor, as they developed the South's extractive sector. Finally, as a wave of Progressive reform brought an end to the convict lease, it was the federal agents of progress, the civil engineers of the US Office of Public Roads, who helped articulate and exploit the enormous contribution of the South's black forced labor pool to yet another vision of a New South.4
This continual correspondence between the forces of modernization and the perpetuation of bound labor was no anomaly. Even chattel slavery in the Americas was a crucial component in the historical development of capitalism.5 The various extreme forms of labor coercion and control that supplanted slavery in the modern world continued to demonstrate a "progressive” quality; rather than constituting an “archaic” obstacle to capitalist development, destined to be swept away by modernity, unfree labor has frequently been an essential element in the accumulation process that made that development possible.6
In the postbellum South, at each stage of the region's development, convict labor was concentrated in some of the most significant and rapidly growing sectors of the economy. Initially southern prisoners worked on the railroads, laying the indispensable infrastructure for nineteenth-century economic development. Then, as southern capitalists turned to the rapid development of the region's exploitable resources, convicts played a key role in the increasing vertical integration of extractive industries which required large concentrations of steady, predictable, controllable — i.e. proletarianized — labor. When the inflexible cost of this capitalized labor force became a detriment during sudden economic downturns, convict labor proved adaptable to other uses, particularly in seasonal and migratory extractive sectors, such as the lumber and turpentine industries. Finally, as many white southerners tired of the persistent underdevelopment that helped make unfree labor compatible with the exploitation of the region's raw materials in the first place, the chain gang came to replace the convict-lease as the dominant form of penal labor in the twentieth-century South.7 This decisive shift from private to public exploitation of forced black labor marked the triumph of the modern state's version of the social and economic benefits to be reaped from bound labor, in the name of developing a more healthy, less dependent, “progressive” economy. Thus, from Reconstruction through the Progressive Era the various uses of convict labor coincided with changes in the political economy of southern capitalism. In each case the impetus to harness forced labor to the project of infrastructural development and economic growth came not from those who yearned for the social and economic order of the slave South, but from the region's most ardent advocates of progress, who sought to reconcile modernization with the racial caste system.
Robert Elliott Burns's I am a Fugitive from the Georgia Chain Gang!, published in 1932, and the subsequent hit movie based on his book, cast a national spotlight on Georgia's horrendous penal system during the Depression era. Burns's focus on governmental corruption and ineptitude, his inaccurate portrayal of Georgia's penal system as a holdover from a discredited past, and the popular format of an adventure story against the odds all fit well with the country's mood in the early years of the economic crisis. The outcry occasioned by Burns's first-person account of the horrors of working the roads on a Georgia chain gang can only be considered ironic, however. Burns himself was a businessman, not an ardent social reformer following in the footsteps of George Washington Cable, Rebecca Latimer Felton, or Frank Tannenbaum, all of whom had earlier exposed the barbarity of southern punishment.8 Moreover, his story competed with contemporaneous attacks on the southern chain gang by writers considerably to his left.9 Nevertheless, Burns's account painted a grim and convincing portrait of a penal system governed by capricious cruelty, alternately beset by bureaucratic indifference and corruption, and driven by the desire to wring from felons their “debt” to the state in the coin of relentless hard labor on county roads.
Of course, I am a Fugitive pointed to another paradox as well: Burns was white. If penal reform in Georgia had done nothing to ameliorate the plight of the convict, what did begin to change with the advent of the chain gang was the racial composition of Georgia's convict force. Indeed, during the 1920s, the era in which Burns's narrative was set, Georgia's prison system became truly biracial for the first time in its history. Black critics of the convict-lease had long attributed the state's reluctance to punish whites to the system's brutalities and its association with slavery.10 In 1908, when convict-leasing came to an end in Georgia, there were only 322 white prisoners in a white population of 1.4 million. This incarceration rate of 23 prisoners per 100,000 whites was absurdly low by any historical standards. But if nearly 90 per cent of the state's felony convicts were black when the chain gang was instituted, two decades later 27 per cent of the prisoners were white, and the absolute number of white convicts had increased to 916.11
Contradictions abound in this transformation. In a state increasingly committed to segregation from cradle to grave, black and white convicts worked the roads together, chained to one another in full view of the public. Although its advocates initially deemed the chain gang especially appropriate for blacks, the abolition of leasing actually accommodated the criminal justice system to punishing white lawbreakers, since it diminished the hesitation of juries to mete out prison sentences to whites. Yet, at the same time, the resulting increased visibility of white prisoners began to erode the public faith in the benefits and justice of penal labor. The national horror which greeted Burns's tale cannot be divorced from the fact that this particular victim of the chain gang had white skin. Indeed in 1931 and 1932, an almost identical but far less celebrated case of suffering, desperate escape, and fugitive life was recounted by a black Georgian, Jesse Crawford, who with the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People successfully defeated Georgia's attempts to extradite him from Michigan, whence he had fled.12
Despite the scandal generated by I am a Fugitive, the southern convict road gang, like its predecessor the convict-lease, eventually began to succumb to economic and social forces which redefined the place of penal labor in the South's political economy, rather than to the renewed clamor for humanitarian penal reform. Even as early as World War I, the US Department of Agriculture noted that demobilization would create unemployment which could be partially contained by road work for the jobless. Indeed, in the 1920s southern states began to discover that in hard times road work might be necessary as a form of relief, partly because "idle negro labor ... is liable to produce a very acute and dangerous situation,” but also for the benefit of unemployed whites. In Georgia, in 1922, a state highway engineer, W.R. Neel, reported that he was "receiving letters ... asking why we do not start road work and give relief to so many unemployed people who are actually suffering throughout the state.”13
During the Great Depression, which hit the South particularly hard, the full realization dawned that “the more prisoners that are worked upon the roads the less opportunity is given citizens ..., many of whom formerly worked upon highways and are now seeking relief from the Welfare Agencies.” In 1931 a Georgia congressman, noting that “convicts are being used on the construction of some federal aid roads” in Georgia, angrily enquired of the Bureau of Public Roads, “what benefits may be derived from road construction in the relief of unemployment where the funds appropriated are used in the maintenance of convict labor?” The Bureau promptly replied that federal emergency appropriations to the states for road work as unemployment relief carried the explicit rider that "the use of convict labor on emergency Federal aid projects is prohibited.”14
This represented quite a change. Prior to the 1930s, besides the persistent advocacy — and even supervision — of convict road work by federal road engineers, in practice the most telling example of federal encouragement for the chain gang had been the willingness to accede to the demands of southern states that the region's counties be allowed to use convict labor as a matching contribution to federal grants-in-aid for road improvement.15 Since the passage of the Federal Road Aid Act of 1916, "a very considerable amount of highway work financed in part by Federal aid has been performed by convict labor in Georgia,” the head of the US Bureau of Public Roads admitted in 1930. Increasingly, however, after that year bankrupt and impoverished southern counties found they could no longer afford to maintain even the most rudimentary chain gang, and remanded their convicts to the state authorities. Combined with the growing importance of federal relief funds mandating that “no convict labor shall be employed on the project” and the consequent growth of a free labor road force, these fiscal and political constraints began to erode the importance of county chain gangs to the state's economy.16
Thus it was that in penology, as in so many other areas, the New Deal and Great Depression began the final assault against the “southern way of life.” Gradually, over the past sixty years, the chain gang has disappeared from the South's roads, and most southern prisons have conformed to the model prescribed by modern penology: huge penitentiaries which serve primarily as warehouses for society's permanently displaced and disemployed (former) citizens. Modern prison life, in the South now as in the rest of the United States, is defined by a numbing, brutal inactivity, an "enforced idleness,” which ironically even in the 1930s one historian of prisons thought to characterize as worse than the forced labor then prevailing on the southern chain gangs.17
Rather than “hard labor,” today's prisoners do “hard time.” But this, too, like its predecessors, reflects some fundamental facts about race and political economy in America. Racial disproportion is the most striking continuity in the history of southern, and indeed US, prisons. In Georgia, where today perhaps a quarter of the state's population is African-American, blacks make up 60 per cent of the prison population. The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world; but for African-Americans, more than half of those imprisoned in the United States, this rate is far higher still.18 African-Americans have always invoked the experience of enslavement and imprisonment — and escape — as powerful metaphors for injustice and the struggle against it. References to the Middle Passage, plantation slavery, the convict-lease, the chain gang, and the penitentiary abound in African-American folklore, song (especially work songs), and literature.19 Today, the words "Parchman' and "Angola,” the penal colonies of Mississippi and Louisiana respectively, still carry a chilling resonance for many African-Americans.20 Not only in the South, but in the USA as a whole, there is still no separating the question of punishment from the matter of race; and punishment has always been related to labor, both forced and free.
The status of work outside of penal institutions, as much as labor exploitation on the inside, has always shaped the nature of convict labor. Historically, a labor economist points out, in the United States “the racial duality of the criminal justice system evolved in tandem with the racial duality of the labor market”; in other words, penal systems have both defined African-Americans as a "criminal” class and helped channel their labor into the least rewarding sectors of the economy. One result of southern convict labor, for instance, was the degradation of labor in industries in which prisoners were concentrated; since these also happened to be the same industries with high concentrations of free black workers fleeing the agricultural labor market, this tended to exacerbate the southern association of the least desirable forms of nonagricultural labor with a racially subordinated class.21 The convict-lease, the chain gang, and the modern penitentiary have all reflected and reinforced African-Americans' location — or lack of it — in the American labor market.
In the postbellum South, at least until the Depression, perhaps until the postwar period, the criminal justice system served to exploit unfree black workers in order to help industrial capitalism through its developmental stages, and to terrorize free black workers into silent, if bitter, acceptance of their subordinate role in the economy and society, Not even northward migration, new (if temporary) opportunities in the labor market, the civil-rights struggles and partial victories, and the growth of the newest New South, the Sunbelt, have been able to dissolve the historical bonds of race, labor markets, poverty, and punishment. As capitalism has entered its advanced, or postindustrial, stage many African-Americans have essentially been shunted out of the labor market altogether. This recently created enormous surplus labor pool is no longer the object of exploitation, but simply of social control; prisons can keep young, unemployed blacks "permanently out of the labor market,” and those lucky enough to hold minimum-wage jobs can be thankful they are not in prison. When race was associated with compulsion, punishment emphasized compulsory labor and proletarianization; when it is associated with idleness, punishment means restraint and control of a de-proletarianized "lumpen” class. For today, when structural unemployment, deindustrialization, and social dislocation have their most dramatic impact on the African-American community, incarceration is often the fate reserved for the so-called "black underclass,” the chronically disemployed who populate the nation's penal colony.22
In an era defined by radical attempts to dismantle state functions, criminal justice facilities stand as a striking exception. When it comes to building and staffing new prisons, state legislatures abandon all pretense of fiscal restraint, and engage in what one trenchant analyst has fittingly dubbed "carceral keynesianism.”23 The expansion of the "prison-industrial complex” provides jobs for the rural unemployed even while it siphons off the urban "underclass” from America's terminally ill cities. If and when the prison boom proves too costly, a new movement is afoot in this post-welfare-state era: the privatization of punishment,
Contemporary privatized convict labor — usually compensated, at best, with a sub-minimum wage — appeals in particular to the service sector, arguably the most "progressive” sphere of today's economy, and appears suited to the imperatives and rhythms of postindustrial production. "Private sector involvement in prison-based businesses offers specific advantages to companies with specific labor needs,” remarks a 1985 National Institute of Justice report on this burgeoning form of penal labor, without irony. “Some general benefits can accrue to virtually any company that agrees to employ prisoners,” the report continues.
The principal economic benefit is free use of space and utilities. Some personnel cost savings can be realized by employing prison labor, primarily because employer-paid health insurance coverage is not required. Nor, of course, are any other benefits. ... Prison labor is attractive to the employer with seasonal labor needs, who can fine-tune labor costs much more precisely, and with much less risk of losing workers, with a prison labor force than with non-prisoner workers. Prison labor is also attractive to companies with shift demands that are difficult to fill ... and to companies with short-term product manufacturing cycles followed by long idle periods.
Of course many prisoners are “willing” to work under any conditions, when the alternative is the deadening idleness and monotony of prison life.24
Another study of privatization commissioned by the Department of Justice notes the “potential political concern” that prisoners might organize labor unions in order to improve their working conditions. But this concern is quickly dismissed; the study reports that “states are allowed to prohibit collective bargaining and other union activity of prisoners, and federal law prohibits convicted felons from holding union office.” And in the event of a legal objection to this form of labor subordination and exploitation,
these restrictions are likely to withstand constitutional challenge, since the 13th Amendment allows involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime and may thus attach some of the characteristics of slavery to prisoners — including prohibitions on slave organizations.25