Posted 10 months ago on Sept. 7, 2013, 12:48 p.m. EST by owshelpermonkey
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Prison Labor, Slavery & Capitalism In Historical Perspective
by Stephen Hartnett
Stephen Hartnett is a visiting lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California-Berkeley. He is also a volunteer instructor in California's San Quentin Prison.
Shaka is an intellectually hungry young man who, due to a first-time arrest on a nonviolent drug charge, has spent the past twelve years struggling to maintain his sanity in a medium-security prison in Indiana. One of Shaka's chief dilemmas -- among the daily prospects of rape, gang violence, harassment by guards, and the deafening anomie of boredom -- is that the prison he is in has instituted a policy offering prisoners a Faustian choice: fester in your cell with few opportunities for life-improving activities, or, as a means of escaping the drudgery of confinement, work in a prison-administered factory. Despite the welcome opportunities for physical activity and conversation with fellow prisoners offered by the prison's work program, Shaka is adamant that he will not labor for the prison. He explains his reasoning as follows:
During slavery, work was understood to be a punishment, and became despised as any punishment is despised. Work became hated as does any activity which accomplishes no reward for the doer. Work became identified with slavery, and slavery with punishing work, thus work came to be a most hated activity ... This is why I adamantly refuse to work within the prison system: I unequivocally refuse to be a slave.
Shaka's comparison of contemporary prison labor and antebellum slavery may seem hyperbolic or even melodramatic, but in fact Shaka is historically accurate and politically astute in linking prison, labor, and slavery. This is perhaps the most productive means of thinking about the role of what I call "the correctional-industrial complex."