In light of the recent National Prison Strike, Joanne, Nathan, and Brian trace the history of cheap labor, rehabilitation, and protest within the American prison system. Nathan caps off the discussion by sharing a personal story his grandfather used to tell about growing up on the coast of Jamaica.
Joann Freeman: Now, Nathan. The prison strike began August 21st and ended September 9th, and I gather that those dates are of historical significance.
Nathan Connolly: They are. The date of the 21st of August 1971 is the anniversary of George Jackson’s killing in San Quentin, California. A very important activist and theorist of prisons. And the 9th of September is when the Attica Prison Rebellion began after the killing of Jackson in September 9th in that same year of 1971. Incidentally, the 21st of August in 1831 is also the anniversary of Nat Turner’s rebellion, and so again the idea that the strike is in some ways about rebelling against wage slavery is also meant to hearken to that date.
Joann Freeman: Now, we just heard Brian’s interview of about a decade ago with that prison work crew. This year that the prison strikers were protesting the practice of using prisoners as a kind of cheap or free labor that could be farmed out, and that’s obviously, Brian, a very long story here in the US.
Brian Balogh: Yeah. It sure is, Joann. It really goes back as far as penitentiaries go. Work in prison and the value of work in prison, even before the Civil War, was really quite important to a number of local economies. At the end of the Civil War, 1865, it’s estimated that the value of work done in prisons was almost 30 million dollars. Now, that doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s worth billions of dollars in today’s economy.
Joann Freeman: I think running along side that, certainly for part of the long span of American history, is the idea that somehow or other, prison can reform you. That it’s a place where you go to be improved or reformed.
Brian Balogh: You’re absolutely right, Joann. In fact, I wanna share with you the name of one of my favorite societies in all of American history. It’s the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. It started in the 1780s, and Ben Franklin was a member at one point. But I’m gonna throw it right back at you, because something tells me you know more about the enlightenment ideas that informed this kind of thinking than I do.
Joann Freeman: Indeed. The idea of using prison to reform the people who are within that prison is kind of born of the enlightenment, and born of this idea that the society that you’re living in and its government can really shape your character. And so, the idea then of prisons is if you create somehow an environment that will shape the character of the people within it, that in some way or another you can reform these individuals and then release them out into society.
Brian Balogh: But Joann, you’ve got your enlightenment and I’ve got my experts. But they’re really connected in this idea of rehabilitation, because by the 20th century, social scientists, psychologists, educators, sociologists, they all come along and say, “You know we can make prisons a place where people can be rehabilitated and turned back into good citizens,” and one of the models of that was started in Massachusetts, no surprise there. The Norfolk Prison Colony, and the prisoners wore regular uniforms there. The prison was staffed with psychiatrists and educators, and the prisoners themselves actually had a role in governing the prison. And perhaps its most famous prisoner was Malcolm X and he really got experience in public speaking by joining the prison debate society.
Joann Freeman: Now you bring up Malcolm X, which then leads me to wanna ask another question, which is there’s also obviously a tradition of prison protests, too.
Nathan Connolly: There is, there is. And you know, I think we have a way of realizing now, just how important these prisons were for really unintentionally so, for place of political education. People finding ways to work the system, to figure out legal channels for getting reform or trying to make movements, that are built around people sharing legal documents and conferring about their rights, and so the Nation of Islam was one of these organizations that had a large and vibrant life inside prisons, of people learning how to make petitions to the system and try and initiate reform. But even the Civil Rights movement as a whole has a history that runs parallel from the direct action moments in the streets, to the moments behind bars, trying to secure better conditions.
Nathan Connolly: So, the fact that you have Malcolm X on the one hand but also someone like Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, or any number of activists who spend time behind bars who then also are able to have a really unique vantage point from which to then raise critiques about the justice of American Society. It almost goes without saying that one really gets a sense of what democracy is worth, from behind the bars of a cage.
Joann Freeman: Now Nathan, I love your comment about how you can tell so much about American society by viewing it through the bars of a prison cell, because you know it’s hard I think today, to look at prisons with any kind of positivity given where we are. But in early America when I think about prisons, I think about this moment in time when insane asylums, and prisons, and any other numbers of kinds of places where people were sheltered and kept if they were problematic in some way, there was an assumption, a kind of optimistic assumption in early America that, if you framed them the right way and built them the right way, and sort of made it so that the environment that people were living in was just right, that it would sort of stamp their character in some kind of a way. I’m wondering when in the 19th century does it really make that flip? Like when is that abandoned? When does it really become. When does the forced labor component of it become more prevalent?
Nathan Connolly: Well by a lot of measures, it begins after the end of reconstruction, particularly in the south. You see a real inversion of the uses of formal state incarceration. Initially when you think about the incarcerated population of the postbellum period, most of them aren’t really African American, because they’re newly freed from the plantation. Only very quickly, in the wake of expanding surveillance and other kinds of responses to disenfranchisement do you begin to see people of color, particularly African Americans begin to balloon in the prison population in the south. And they actually begin to out strip their white counterparts in that particular place in society. And so the very famous or somewhat infamous formulation of slavery by another name is really a postbellum, really post reconstruction problem.
Nathan Connolly: And in that case, absolutely rehabilitation is not the issue. It’s about driving down the cost of labor. It’s about finding ways to keep politically disempowered the communities from which these people come, and in some ways, keeping a sense of order that is monitored by the law enforcement state, and that’s gonna be paying all kinds of dividends for the folks who are running the businesses that draw on prison labor, and the folks who are running for office safely, because much of the population is disenfranchised.
Brian Balogh: And the prisoners that Nathan was talking about, African American men in late 19th century America, would have been citizens if they hadn’t been imprisoned. And I have to feel that there was a lot more at stake when you are imprisoning would be citizens or, I think it’s fair to say, stripping citizenship from African Americans.
Nathan Connolly: So, I have a story for you guys. I’ll tell you a story that my grandfather tells me, and it’s about his time as a kid, and he’s not in the United States. He’s a kid in Jamaica, and he lives right off the water in Kingston, and he lives literally a stone’s throw from the outside of the wall of the Kingston Penitentiary on Tower Street. And you have to understand that in Jamaica, the people who live on the waterfront are the poorest of the poor. So, the affluent live in the hills, and the poor live down by the water with the fishmongers and by the oil and the harbor and all of that.
Nathan Connolly: He tells a story about being a kid, and just as the sun is going down and the colors on the bricks of the prison on Tower Street are beginning to turn, everyone is standing outside the prison walls, and they’re waiting, and they’re waiting. And suddenly over the walls, come these giant loaves of corn bread. Still warm, over the walls into all of the impoverished people who are living outside the prison. And crowds are gathered around and they’re scooping up these loaves off the ground. Some are catching them in mid-air to the sound of cheers, and it’s this huge mystery about what exactly is happening inside the prison to make it possible for this bread to come out, and to be feeding the poor folks on the waterfront in Kingston.
Nathan Connolly: And my grandfather tells the story, oftentimes with tears in his eyes, because for him it’s a testament to just how poor the folks were on the outside, that the prisoners on the inside were aware of this and basically providing them with surplus food, that was all being spent because of this massively bloated carceral budget that the British colonial officials had in Jamaica at the time. And for me, it strikes me as a really powerful metaphor, for a lot of the really good and powerful sustenance that can come from prisons. When we listen to what prisoners say, and you think about the poetry of incarcerated children, or all of the great thinkers whose writings in prison have moved forward a whole bunch of fields that we consider to be our own. Whether history or anything else, and so, I don’t know, I just wanted to think for a minute about how we would all be much poorer and much worse off if there weren’t folks in prison who hadn’t lost their humanity and decided to share some of that stuff that they had inside with us.
Brian Balogh: Well and what comes to my mind, Nathan and what’s so poignant for me in your story is that direct connection between the people inside the prison and the people outside the prison, and too often I think, we wanna lock people up and throw away the key. We wanna forget about that connection. We wanna forget about that vision from within the bars, as you talked about earlier, that really can make us all think more carefully about what it means to live in a so-called free society.