Forced prison labor put downward pressure on wages at American companies, worsening inequality


Originally published at:


I’m the first to point out that simple supply and demand analysis is extremely naive and shouldn’t be substituted for real world study.

That said, when someone actually does the studying and comes to the conclusion that more cheap labour makes labour cheaper, well, it does make us want to go, “Oh, you don’t say?!?”


I dont know if I like using terms like “forced prison labor” when there is a perfectly good word like “slavery” we can use.


The 13 Amendment really should be revised. I am not seeing the point in keeping the prison exception clause.

Of course that is only one of many issues with the penal system.

FWIW, I thought this documentary on netflix was pretty good.



My wife and I personally lost work (income) to prison labor, as did others at the small company where we worked in Redmond WA in the 1980s. No one said anything about the prisoners being forced to work on those products however, but it was the only way they could earn a tiny amount of money to purchase supplemental items from the prison commissary.

I suspect that someone in the prison system may have been getting compensated personally for providing access to that cheap labor pool.


Well, that helps explain why wages are lower south of the Mason-Dixon Line (along with unionization rates and a bunch of other factors, of course).


“And oh, my Lord, how the money rolled in…”


Came here to mention this.


What did they do?


I mean… every place in America has prisons. It’s not just a southern problem.


When we first returned to the US after living in Taiwan for two years we took work at a small company that manufactured and packaged computer peripherals and productivity aids, among all kinds of other stuff. The particular work that we and other families and individuals lost was doing labor-intensive piecework on our own time applying printed labels to plastic keyboard templates and similar work.

When we lived in Taiwan we saw whole families gathered around tables in their homes doing similar piecework for automotive manufacturing companies and other industries. This was low-paying work but if the family had kids with sharp young eyes and nimble fingers it was a good supplement to other household incomes, and may have even been a family’s primary income.

I’d rather see the work done by prisoners than children, but at the time it was a good side income for us and I’m sure it was very helpful to those Taiwanese families as well.




The economic impacts go beyond just wages.


Hm. I was more like, hey look, someone made a study that goes beyond simple supply and demand analysis, and looks into consequences other than lowering wages in competing industries. Providing proof and figures; the sort of material that can be used as an effective weapon to fight this shit. And a rag like The Economist picked up on it, of all places.


The convict leasing system was much more prevalent in the South. The Florida prisoners in the picture at the top of the article were leased as lumberjacks. Others were miners or farm labor. Vagrancy laws meant any unemployed black man could be imprisoned and put to work. That just didn’t happen on the same scale in the North.


And yet it’s still not a southern problem. The “south is the cause of racism in America” just really lets the rest of the country off the hook. It’s an american problem, even if historically much of the worst was in the south… keeping in mind that part of the reason this was (and sometimes continues to be true) is because we have the largest concentrations of African American citizens. In the north, you saw a steady uptick in racist incidents and policies after the Great Migration.


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