Prison Labor and Industrial Penology

Charlie Bright speaks about the re-articulations of carceral narratives: from the era of Fordism through discourses on modernization and the desperate rehabilitation of the rehabilitative model. We discuss 100 years of constant re-negotiations of the coherence of departments of correction –informed by struggles within prisons and the populations they seek to control– and look to the ’52 uprising in the Jackson State Prison to discuss the fall of industrial penology.

We also recommend checking out:

From the Factory to the Warehouse: A Brief History of Prison Labor in Michigan, a new Brooklyn Rail article written by our comrades at Michigan Abolition and Prisoner Solidarity (MAPS)

And Riot in Cell Block 11, a 1954 film about the Jackson Prison Riot, available to stream for free.


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a María: Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, my name is a María. In this episode, co-producer Alejo Stark speaks with Charlie Bright about the re-articulations of carceral narratives: from the era of Fordism through discourses on modernization and the desperate rehabilitation of the rehabilitative model. Bright discusses how a century’s worth of constant re-negotiations of the coherence of departments of correction has informed –and been informed by– struggles within prisons and the populations they seek to control, and some of the reasons why industrial penology was overcome by riots and may be turning to technologies of e-carceration.

Alejo: My name is Alejo and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement building project based in Detroit, Michigan. Today we speak with Charlie Bright. He’s a professor emeritus of history and the Residential College at the University of Michigan, and is also the author of “The Powers That Punish,” an extraordinary history of Jackson prison in the state of Michigan, which traces the emergence of the largest penitentiary in the world in the early 20th century, up until the historic 1952 riot that shook the walls and cages of this model prison of industrial penology. So welcome Charlie, and thank you for joining us.

Charlie Bright: Nice to be here.

Alejo: So I wanted to start sort of by denaturalizing the sheer scale of the carceral state today, not just in Michigan but in the United States as a whole. As you know, there are dozens of state prisons and jails that dot the vast territories of the state of Michigan, but this vast carceral geography, as it were, did not exist in the first few decades of the 20th century. So can you sort of contextualize for us the scale and some main differences in the state’s prisons in the first decades of the 20th century.

Charlie Bright: Well, in the 60s there was some sociological studies that said that no matter what happens with crime rates — they arise, they fall –The proportion of the American population incarcerated remained the same and they produce these graphs that showed a kind of level threshold of incarceration nationally as well as in the state of Michigan. And that held until the 1970s when it went through the roof, the incarceration rates began to balloon. But in up until the 70s and through much of the 20th century there was rises and falls in crime and crime waves and that’s all thing. But the proportion of the Michigan people who were incarcerated remained pretty much the same and it was falling. In the 1940s the Jackson prison had close to 5,200 inmates. By the mid 1960s it was down to 2,500 and their parole rates in the fifties and early sixties were quite high and the population of the state prison system as a whole was in decline — not going up. And that was reversed probably starting in 1975-76 and then it’s like an arrow through the roof.

Alejo: Yeah, even the racial composition too, right, of the early 20th century of Michigan as a state and of course if Michigan prisons was actually quite different. we are also talking about a state that had just a few handful of prisons, right? Jackson was only one of how many prisons? Two or three?

Charlie Bright: There were three major penitentiaries, Jackson, one in Ionia, one in Marquette. Marquette was the one for serious threats and dangerous criminals and that sort of thing and had the isolation zones and so forth. Jackson was the big holding prison and the one in Ionia was for younger prisoners and tended to send people there that they thought could be rehabilitated by a five year term in prison or something like that. But those three. Then there was some road camps that were associated in the 1920s with road building and bridge building and the state, and the camps moved around. They weren’t always in the same place. And these housed prisoners that they thought were well, not threats to escape.

Alejo: So can you tell a little bit more about Jackson, specifically, which will become the largest penitentiary in the world in the 1920s, housing — or having the capacity to house– almost 5,000 prisoners. It was also the first state penitentiary in Michigan, right? Can you sort of tell us a little bit more about how this penitentiary emerges and what is that at stake? In a way, I mean it’s a complicated story as you tell in the book, but what is it about Jackson and its function around prison labor that’s significantly changed in the past one hundred years?

Charlie Bright: Well, in the book I had this problem of trying to understand why, when they built additional prison capacity in the 1920s, they put it all in a single complex in what is now Jackson. Jackson was already the site of the major state penitentiary. Had been since the 1840s really and had gone through several iterations in the late 19th century expansion — new walls were built, there was this sort of thing. But in the 1920s people were expecting a bulge in incarceration rates because of prohibition and everybody expected a crime wave to follow prohibition. And it did. And the number of people being incarcerated grew as a result of that. And the capacity of the three state prisons at that time was simply not enough to hold the rising numbers. And so they decided to build more capacity. What was interesting was that they didn’t build several prisons scattered across the state to absorb this. They built one single large prison that would hold 5,200-300 inmates. And this was started in 1924 by the warden of the then Jackson prison because he was convinced that prisons could be self supporting if they were industrial. That is, if they had factories that manufactured articles for sale in the free market: furniture, binder twine, cotton goods and so forth. So he set out to build a prison at Jackson, not at the old site, but down the road on Cooper street that would be big enough to house an industrial complex. And for that he would have a lot of prisoners who would worked the Industrial Complex. River Rouge plant of Henry Ford has just been opened and the model was there, you know, concentrate production, concentrate the means of production, concentrate the labor force — and you have mass production. And he persuaded the then governor Groesbeck that it would be feasible for the prison to take this on. And so he started building a new prison using prison labor and the prison took until 1934 to complete. So biggest prison, the big Jackson facility wasn’t available until after the depression knocked out industrial production but that’s another story. So in the 20s he was adding plant and equipment to the old plant, the old buildings, and running them 24 hours a day in some cases, making things for sale in the free market. At the same time, he’s using prison labor to build the new prison down the road. And that got complicated. And part of it was, to build a big prison, was how industrial thinking was at the time. The other part of it was that the way a prison was built in the 1920s was it was under the supervision of the warden of the prison who doled out the contracts and made the deals with suppliers of lumber, of brick, brick masons, electricians, plumbers, and all of that sorta thing, plus the capacity of prisoners to lug things and carry things. So to do that, he was doling out all kinds of favors to people in Jackson County and people he knew down the road and contiguous counties for contracts on the job. And the more he doled out the contracts, the bigger the project got because he could see ways of expanding. So the wall kept getting extended in the 20s, it started with one design and then the drawings were thrown away, then another wall addition was made and extra buildings were added to it. And all of this was to be justified by the industrial capacity of the thing when it was finished to produce a profit. The old prison with certain industrial capabilities did make a profit I think in 1925 and 26 just barely. But the warden was running up huge debts too, so the profits were — there was a lot of finagling of the books and you know, he was convincing the governor over and over again “this is gonna work.” But by the time the prison was finished, even before it was finished in the early thirties the depression knocked out the market for industrial made products. Not only that that, but it also enhance the power of unions to prevent the sale of prison made goods in the free market. And there were legislation in ’35 and ’37, both state and federal, that forbade the prison from selling prison made goods in the open market. So just as the prison was open, the industrial model fell apart. And that produced a whole other story about the prison.

Alejo: So we’ll get to that story in a second. But what you’re describing, is what you sort call in the book “industrial penology.” Right? This sort of idea that you can make a profit, and the prison itself becomes self-sustaining. And you mentioned also in the book that by the Mid 1920s the warden at Jackson boasted that 75%, or something like that, of its own imprisoned population –that basically 5,000 prisoners or so– were employed, right? That number is unthinkable today. I mean, most prisoners today do not work and so we’re looking at a very different model of punishment and of how prisons are run and what the justification for punishment is — and what the specific practices of punishments are as well. And so can you talk a little bit about this very brief stint of industrial penology? The other side of the coin, as it were, of Fordism? And to what extent was it paradigmatic? Because Jackson is one of other so called “big house” in the United States at the time. Is that right?

Charlie Bright: To understand prisons and the changes that go on in prison, you don’t think of it in terms of reform efforts and failure, but rather the cobbling together of a coherent narrative about incarceration; that those who run prisons have to speak to multiple audiences. They have to speak to the public, that they’re doing some good in that their bringing in prisoners who been criminals back into society as reformed individuals, or that you speak to politicians about what we’re doing in prison is worth the money you’re spending, speak to the staff and the guards in the prison about what they’re doing and how what they’re doing is in sync with what the government wants and what the public wants and is a good public service. But it also has to speak to prisoners, and give prisoners a kind of standard way of thinking of the terms of their incarceration, in particularly how they can get out. What are the terms of release? What are the terms of parole? What do I have to do to convince you that I’m, if not really reformed, appear to be reformed, right? So that carceral narrative has to be a coherent one that speaks to these multiple audiences at once and it’s constantly being renegotiated. That is, changes in the society, changes in the prison and changes in politics — all of this is constantly forcing people to rearticulate the coherence of the narrative of what incarceration is doing to whom, what makes them misbehave and what we’re doing to correct them. And what Halbert did in the ordinance in the 20s was to put together a narrative that said that the criminals are basically lazy. They don’t want to work. What prison does is put them to work in industrial jobs, which is exactly what they’ll do when they get out of the prison. They’ll go to work for Henry Ford in an industrial job and I can turn around to the politicians and say “an industrial prison that teaches prisoners not to be lazy, but to be, you know, productive citizens by holding down a job is also going to make a profit for the state. So the state doesn’t have to worry about the expenses of an industrial prison,” and speaks to a larger audience of the public that what we’re doing is actually contributing to the overall prosperity of the United States and its economy. But it also speaks to prisoners. If you go to work and you work hard and get a good work record, you go before the parole board, they will deduct time for the good work record. So prisoners knew how they could get out. That narrative then spoke to all of these audiences in a kind of coherent way, that when it was cobbled together in the 1920s made sense. The problem was when in the 30s the industrial core fell out of that model. It was harder for prisoners to see how to get out because there was no jobs to go to work for. It was harder for the state to see that this industrial prison was worth the money, right? It was harder from guards to see how they could run a prison without the jobs in the promise of jobs that was the way they negotiate with prisoners — “If you cooperate with me, I’ll make sure you get a good posting in this factory rather than the other one. You don’t have to do laundry, you can do, you know, binder twine and whatever.” So that narrative had to be coherent and it was in the 20s and it fell apart in the 30s just as the new industrial prison was open.

Alejo: Of course, that narrative today — in a way it’s still around the way in which the Michigan Department of Corrections still speaks — well, there’s been a sort of rehabilitation of the rehabilitative element of prison. But of course there’s, there’s no jobs you have to come out and you know, 2% of that in prison population is actually working today.

Charlie Bright: The rehabilitation rhetoric of the Department of Corrections is a return to the rehabilitation racket. They set it aside in the mid seventies and in the 80s if you’d ask anybody in the Department of corrections what corrections was for, it’s for containment and for warehousing. And part of the problem with that “mass incarceration as a warehouse” project is it does not speak to prisoners about the terms on which they can get along and get out. And it doesn’t give guards and custodians the resources to concede something to prisoners if they in turn will help them run the institution peacefully. The only thing they can do is put them in solitary.

Prison in the 20s was an industrial model which fell apart in the 30s and then again in the forties — late forties and 50s they put together a narrative again around therapy and individualized treatment and education along with work. And so they mixed work in with other things that you could do or had to do because there were only about 500 jobs in the place, but they could have counseling sessions and therapy sessions and educational classes and so forth and many more prisoners in the 50s at Jackson were doing that kind of thing than working in industrial plants. But the narrative was stitched back together because you can say to prisoners, after the riot of ’52, you could say to prisoners, “if you get with the program, do your individual counseling, go to classes and work in the job we give you, which is a menial job and not very meaningful and get your mind right, you’ll get a parole.” And that again spoke to prisoners in a language that was modern and spoken public about, therapy and scientific measures and methods of correction and so forth, told politicians, “we know what we’re doing and we’re doing it in a way that returns prisoners as adjusted citizens maybe not working very hard but at least pretending to be conformist” and spoke to guards about how, if your prisoners cooperate with you and keep the peace of the institution, we will give you a good recommendation for the parole board when you go to the parole board to get released and prisoners knew then how to get out and also how to get along inside with the custodians. The thing to my mind that was coherent about this was that the twenties and the 50s both had narratives of incarceration that were coherent enough to speak to multiple audiences and they all had the theme of reformation and re-inclusion. They did it by different means: hard work, go to factories, therapy adjustment, you know, become a conforming citizen. There were different means to do it. But the principal of both of those and therefore of the first half of the 20th century was that the prison was in the business of reformation and of correction. And the problem from the 70s on was that that promise of reinclusion was taken away. “We are not in the business of rehabilitation,” they said, “we just in the business of holding them — throw away the key.” And when you can’t offer the narrative about re inclusion, you can’t negotiate the cooperation of prisoners to keep the peace of the institution. So then you’re always on edge watching for the least sign of resistance because you don’t have no incentives.

Alejo: In between, of course, you have that 1952 riot, which rocked the Jackson state prison. In a way, it also was, perhaps, the last nail in the coffin of this industrial penology model that you’re describing. So can you tell us what happened in the ’52 riot? There’s also a broader context of other major prison state riots in Trenton, New Jersey for instance, of other sort of “big house” industrial penology-type prisons. Can you reconstruct for us this sort of conjuncture and structural context which gave rise to these flashpoints of the Prisoner Resistance Movement?

Charlie Bright: Well, the first thing about riots in prison is that they’re often explained in terms of if, if the custodians are not on the ball, there’s going to be a rebellion or riot because prisoners are just out of control most of the time and will be out of control if they’re not under control. The problem with that argument — that the prisons are these sort of ticking time bombs that’ll explode the moment a custodian looks the other way and doesn’t pay attention to what the signals are is that in 1951-52 there were riots in dozens of American prisons — and to explain those as serendipitous explosions in separate places sort of strains credulity. I mean, it’s hard to, hard to believe. So I spent a lot of time trying to think about what it was that made for riot in these multiple settings by looking at what happened at Jackson. And what happened in Jackson is a complicated story and I can’t repeat it all, but in 1945-46 there was a big scandal surrounding the warden and the deputy warden, then Harry Jackson and his deputy, for essentially letting inmates run the joint. Without industrial jobs, they essentially conceded anything to the prisoners, to gambling and money and laundering and trading and chickens and you know, contraband of all kinds. And the deal was you keep the lid on, don’t let anybody know that you’re being led out of the prison to go to Detroit Tigers Games on the weekend and we’ll let you run the place. And that story broke in ’45-’46 and it opened the door in Michigan to the introduction of this new reform penology that was being talked about from the late thirties under the new deal and all about how prisons should be not just about hard work, they should also be about rehabilitation, therapy, counseling. You know, the individual treatment model was the was the language of the time. And this was talked about in prisoner management circles really from the late 30’s, certainly from after the Second World War, ’45 on, as the way to go in the future. And the people who ran prisons through industry, which didn’t exist anymore, or through, you know, beatings and brutality were backward and this was the progressive way to go about doing things. The problem with that introduction of a new techniques for managing a prison and new promises for release and so forth is that the first thing it does is destroy the hierarchies that had been built around the industrial model and the corruption of that industrial model in the 30’s, that is, the the hierarchies of prisoner big shots who then control other runners in the building, who have deals with the guards for this kind of privilege or that kind of privilege — there was an aristocrats row in Jackson in the forties where the big shots who had all the control over the sub groups and networks met and planned out how they would share the turf and the profits and so forth and guards were on the take and all of that. Once you destroy that, say we’re going to treat everybody the same and we’re going to go into a new model of individualized treatment for everybody on their own terms and counseling and advising in education, all that, you destroy the old hierarchies as you don’t introduce the new model fully, prisoners don’t know what to expect or how to — the stability of the internal world of the prison is disturbed and they don’t see away to stabilize their lives inside. What is it I have to do to get out of here? What is it I have to do to appeal to the parole board? What is it I have to do to get a better cell assignment? What is it that I have to do to get a better job assignment? I don’t know the rules anymore because the rules that had been in the industrial model had been, you know, swept aside, but hadn’t been replaced by something new. So my argument was that this was happening all over the country, this introduction of this new penology, but it was an incomplete introduction.

Alejo: I’m curious too to hear more about how you think about the relation to the broader context. As you mentioned, there’s multiple riots in other states, in dozens of cities….And so the claim is that there is maybe this passage from one penology model to another that is “incomplete” and therefore it’s a moment of lack of clarity, as it were. This is your claim. There are also other more conjunctural, specific, local conditions in this massive state penitentiary, as well, right? Where 5,000 people are housed and a lot of the main demands that we hear even today in the prison resistance movements can be found also in these prisons: overcrowding and the specificity or soft cell block seven. So, can you tell us a little bit more about the specific conjunctural local conditions?

Charlie Bright: The outbreak of the riot has all the makings of a serendipitous event. This young rookie guard was persuaded by a wiley con to open the cell, his cell, so he could take something to a cell down the block. And as soon as the door was open, he overpowered the guard, put the garden in a cell, and then released 180-90 prisoners from that cell block who took over the whole building. And you know, this is serendipitous in this sense, right? So in that sense, it says that a riot can happen anytime a guard is not paying attention. And it was that kind of notion of the explosion — the time bomb that I wanted to kind of contest because there had to be other reasons. Now once the prisoners, well, they took over the disciplinary block and then the next morning the warden tried to pretend that everything was normal and let half the prison out for breakfast and they went back to their cells after breakfast and they let the other half of the population out for breakfast and somebody said something about salt in the coffee, it was poison. So then there was a lot of food being thrown and the prisoner’s rushed into the yard and took over half the prison and the main yard. And as so often happens in riots and disturbances in prison, the first thing people do is barbecue. And there was a big — the kitchen was raided and they brought out all the meat and to put it in on fires and were eating and you know, scores were being settled. A lot of things were happening once the prisoners had control of a good proportion, the guards pull back. And then there was this negotiation between the director of individualized treatment, Vernon Fox and the head prisoner, who was kind of getting some control over the people in the inside the cell block, for negotiation. And out of that came demands, and the demands of the kind of demands that would exist in any prison at any time: brutality of guards, bad food, poor medical condition, and lack of entertainment and recreation. What was interesting to me was that on that list was these things about clarifying rules, clarifying for parole procedures, giving us some hint of what we have to be doing, what is expected of us. Those kinds of demands were included in this list of, you know, bad food, bad treatment and so on. So what do you make of a list of demands that would be in any prison at any time in the midst of a riot that could have started anytime, anywhere, by the negligence of a guard? How do you explain this happening in multiple places in the same two years? And what I fell back on was that there was a kind of historic change in the reformulation of the carceral narrative and the project of doing that was disturbing the existing hierarchies among inmates and the existing deals between guards and inmates inside for running institutions. Those were being disturbed and something was not being put in it’s place to replace them so the prisoners knew what to expect and guards knew what they could trade and so forth. And that was what made these riots happen all at that time because it was happening all over the country. This new penology coming into existence.

Alejo: Talking about the situation today, of the sort of “rehabilitation,” as it were, of the rehabilitative model, from three industrial penology — warehousing prisoners in the 1970s to once again talking about rehabilitation. One difference that maybe we can note is that there is not only a much larger prison population today, significantly larger, prisoners are also not going to be let out into the so called industrial jobs that have not existed and do not currently exist. And so even as there is this “rehabilitation” of the rehabilitative model in, for instance, the Michigan Department of Corrections and many other departments of corrections in the United States, not only are there no jobs inside, but there’s no jobs on the outside. And so there’s always this task to measure the discursive apparatus that’s being put out by the spokespersons of the Department of Corrections and the actual practices inside. And so, how do you understand that gap?

Charlie Bright: Well, it’s hard to know. I mean, what comes to my mind initially is I don’t think they know what they’re talking about. They’re scrambling for a language that will replace the language of throw away the key and containment because that’s too expensive and too dangerous. And their only solution ultimately is, is to separate each prisoner into its own little box and like chronically seal them to keep them under control because there’s no promises being made. There’s no deal to, you know, get along. Why? There’s no reason to, if you got life without parole, there’s no reason to cooperate. I mean there’s no correspondence between the keeper and the kept. That doesn’t work. So now what do we talk about when we talk about trying to put in some opportunities for education or for reading or for writing possibilities of maybe some preparation for going out into the real world, but their not not jobs because the jobs that they have in the prison are not jobs that, well, they’re not jobs they gonna find on the outside.

So the recourse to this rehabilitation language is a recourse out of failure of the other model and an attempt to find language that will resonate with the public, that is impatient with politicians and are tired of spending this kind of money, with prison unions now — guard unions, which are very powerful in any state, which don’t want to cut back on the size of the prison population because cuts back on their jobs, and prisoners who have not been engaged in a correspondence with the keepers for years. And I don’t think it’s gonna work. I mean, I think, you know, if they read the history, they know that rehabilitation has always been talked about since the first prison was built in Pennsylvania. But whether they’ll ever a find a way of making that resonate as a coherent narrative, I don’t see it yet. There may be some breakthrough in tethering technology that they’ll capture, you know, that will allow them to let a lot of less serious criminals and offenders out. But the result of mass incarceration is not just on the inside, on the outside, the disruption of communities, of families, of generational sequencing in cities like Detroit, the building of these prisons in these little towns all over Michigan where it’s the only source of jobs. This is not an easy thing to unpack.

Alejo: Yeah, I mean, certainly there’s a push towards getting more people out, as you said, on tethers. Even in the state of Michigan, people are being charged 17, 15 bucks a day. We don’t think that’s an alternative to incarceration. That’s also an alternative form of incarceration. And then sort of passing the cost onto loved ones and those who are being punished. Well, thank you so much for joining us today.

Charlie Bright: Thank you.