From the factory to the warehouse
A brief history of prison labor in Michigan
On September 10, 2016, a riot broke out at Kinross Correctional Facility, located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In response to both local conditions as well as the call put out for a national prisoner strike, those confined at Kinross refused to show up to their jobs and organized a protest march in the prison yard. After a tentative truce was reached with the warden, the prisoners returned to their cells and relinquished control of the yard. Still, an “Emergency Response Team” of riot police stormed the facility, assaulted prisoners and left them handcuffed in the yard during a cold autumn rain storm. This set off riots in other units as prisoners destroyed administrators’ offices and attempted to barricade entrances in self-defense. For a moment, prisoners took control of a facility that was supposed to control them.1
The national prisoner strike of 2016, along with a second wave two years later, have placed prison labor at the center of discussions about the crisis of mass incarceration. Workplace struggles have appeared as a way forward for activists and advocates—at Kinross, a call for better wages was included among the demands put out by the prisoners.2 Labor is also an important part of the reformist discourse of the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), which highlights job training as a path toward rehabilitation and reform.
Michigan, where we live, was once a symbol of the “golden age” of industrial capitalism, and its prisons were once factories. But today most prisoners do not work. Some still do, and their labor is often important for the operation of the facilities that confine them, but prisoner labor is now more of an appendage than a central feature of the state’s bloated carceral system. The home of the Motor City has been at the leading edge of the crisis of racial capitalism at least since the 1970s, if not long before. By tracing a genealogy of prison labor and of the relation between prisons and labor in Michigan—by attending to the passage from the “factory” to the “warehouse”—it is possible to shed light on the tendencies and dynamics of the carceral state today, and the prospects for an abolitionist future.
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In The Powers that Punish, the historian Charles Bright shows how Michigan prisons, especially in Jackson, reflected both the specific conditions of the state and the broader transformations in the relation between carceral ideology and labor over the long 20th century.3 Work had long been an important part of the penitentiary, but it was understood primarily as punitive—a punishment that, in combination with reflection, repentance, and pain, would serve to reform the criminal. In this context, work did not have to be productive in order to be effective. Make-work schemes, like smashing rocks, were enough to keep prisoners out of trouble and instill discipline. By the late 19th century, however, prison labor was becoming increasingly industrialized, with productivity and profits being the key measures of success. With this transformation, a newly coherent ideological narrative converged around the centrality of productive labor within the prison—this labor would not only make prisons self-sustaining by generating profits, but also produce rehabilitated subjects ready for gainful employment upon their release.
As contracting or leasing prison labor to private companies fell out of favor, states like New York and California withdrew from the market, shifting to production solely for state use. Michigan, along with other midwestern states, took a different path, opting to produce and sell goods competitively on the open market. In 1907, Jackson prison installed a facility to manufacture binder twine, which immediately began to generate profits. The state also leased and then purchased agricultural land next to the prison and in 1912 opened a commercial cannery at the facility, selling vegetables under the brutally ironic brand name “Home Grown.” The cannery was soon producing and distributing 400,000 cans of vegetables a year to grocery stores and state institutions. By the 1920s, prisoners were also manufacturing brushes, brooms, tombstones, hundreds of varieties of furniture, brick and tile, cement, vinegar, textiles, as well as the prison staple license plates and road signs. The warden ran the twine factory day and night, producing 14 million pounds a year and generating annual profits of $90,000 (over $1 million in today’s dollars); with the boom in highway construction, the state leased a private cement factory and was generating profits of $180,000 (about $2.5 million today) by 1925. The warden boasted that 75 percent of the prisoners at Jackson were gainfully employed, and the profits their labor generated were enough for the prison to pay for itself.4
Michigan’s industrial approach to penology crystallized in the construction of a new model prison in Jackson, which began in 1924—in fact, the new prison was built down the road from the existing one to take advantage of the large pool of cheap prison labor.5 When it was completed a decade later, this monstrous facility, occupying 57 acres and with a capacity for 5,500 prisoners, was the largest walled institution in the world, a title it would hold for half a century. Ironically, the industrial model on which this “big house” was based—organized around the conversion of incarcerated labor into sustainability and rehabilitation—was already entering into crisis before the new prison was finished. The Great Depression made it increasingly difficult to justify investing in prison industry when there was widespread unemployment on the outside. In the 1930s, federal and state legislation restricted the production and distribution of prison-made goods. In this context, the industrial prison in Michigan entered into a period of decline. Even the superheated war economy during the Second World War was only a temporary distortion—as Fred Munnell, head of Prison Industries at Jackson, explained at the American Prison Association meeting in 1943, “One does not have to be a prophet . . . to accept the fact that once this present emergency is over, the urge or the necessity to produce in prison industries will no longer exist.”6 The postwar industrial expansion, which centered on skilled and especially unionized labor, was incompatible with unskilled, low-wage prison labor.
According to Bright, the decline of the industrial model undermined the coherency of the narrative spun by corrections officials, which tied prisoners’ productive labor to their prospects for rehabilitation. If prison industries were being taken offline, it was no longer convincing to center this labor as the key to transitioning prisoners back to society. For their part, prisoners could no longer hope to be granted parole on the basis of a positive work record. By the 1940s, a new psychological or therapeutic approach to penology was beginning to emerge to supplement the industrial model. This approach prioritized the work of professional counselors who would monitor and attend to the individualized treatment of every prisoner. Individualization meant classification, that is, slotting prisoners into “scientific” categories, and aiming to rehabilitate them on that basis. In this new model, productive work was not abandoned but “permanently decentered,” a single component of a broad program that also included education, vocational training, group counseling, and individual therapy.7 As with the industrial model, then, rehabilitation was the goal of this new therapeutic model, but productive work was sidelined.
The nail in the coffin of Michigan’s industrial prison was a prison riot that kicked off at the Jackson facility on April 20, 1952. The prisoners of 15 Block, a segregation unit set apart from the rest of the facility, took four guards hostage and barricaded themselves inside. The next morning, prisoners in the rest of the facility rioted, taking more guards hostage, smashing equipment, seizing knives from the kitchen, and looting the commissary. State police soon retook the prison by force, but the standoff with 15 Block lasted four days and was resolved only through negotiations between prisoners and officials, who agreed to a set of eleven collective demands from the prisoners for an end to harsh punishment, better medical care, participation in the governance of the prison, and clarity regarding the conditions for parole (these demands, however, were never implemented).8
Following the ’52 riot at Jackson, the prison-as-factory became the prison-as-ward. Although this shift meant the end of one component of industrial penology—the search for profits and self-sufficiency through productive labor—it maintained rehabilitation as a core function of the prison. From this perspective, what changed was not the intended outcome but the means of achieving it. Within two decades, however, rehabilitation too would be exhausted.
At first glance, it may seem surprising that the industrial prison would disappear at the same moment that, outside the prison walls, industry was expanding rapidly. In fact, however, it was precisely the expansion of Fordist production and the strength of the labor movement outside the prison—best symbolized by the auto plants of the Motor City—that made industrial labor inside the prison seem so deleterious, so irrational. Why should skilled, unionized, highly paid, and importantly free workers have to compete with incarcerated workers making a few dollars a day? In this way, the decline of the factory inside the walls made sense even as outside the walls everything came to look more and more like a factory.
If the postwar industrial boom helped to shape Michigan’s prisons, its decline had an even more radical effect. Deindustrialization was already well underway in the 1960s, but it accelerated rapidly in the early ’70s. This period, known as the long downturn, is marked by an overall decline in manufacturing, diminishing capital returns, wage stagnation, and increasing turn to automation that pushes workers out of production processes. As the historian Robert Brenner explains, “[b]etween 1973 and the present, economic performance in the U.S., western Europe, and Japan has, by every standard macroeconomic indicator, deteriorated, business cycle by business cycle, decade by decade (with the exception of the second half of the 1990s).”9
These general trends had a racialized character. The Second Great Migration had brought hundreds of thousands of southern Blacks to northern industrial cities like Detroit in search of better jobs and an escape from Jim Crow segregation. The city grew larger and Blacker—from 1920, at the height of the industrial prison, to 1967, when the Great Rebellion exploded, Detroit’s Black population jumped from about four percent to more than one third.10 The stubborn resistance of White workers delayed the entrance of Blacks into industrial workforce until the 1940s and 50s, and the resulting lack of seniority—exacerbated by the UAW’s “last hired, first fired” policy—made them bear the brunt of deindustrialization. By 1960, the unemployment rate for Blacks was three times the rate for Whites; Black auto workers were nearly four times more likely to be unemployed than White auto workers.11 Access to the wage had offered workers a palatable standard of living, and potentially a chance to increase their lot in life. But the closing of the factories meant a near-total reorganization of this life. Detroit’s former workers, this racialized surplus population, adapted in various ways. Those with means—mostly White—moved to the suburbs, while those without—mostly Black—had to make do in whatever ways they could, often by participating in the informal or illegal economy.
The demographic transformation of Detroit was intensified by the reaction of its white majority. As the city’s Black population grew, Whites used everything from legal measures to terroristic violence to resist the integration of social life, and when these measures failed they fled to the suburbs. White flight intensified in response to Detroit’s Great Rebellion in 1967, one of the largest uprisings among a broader wave of insurrections that marked the second half of the 1960s. This uprising posed a direct challenge to the assumptions that underwrote the postwar liberal consensus, a belief that good factory jobs and piecemeal civil rights reforms would be adequate solutions to the racial fissures that cut through the city. If we dare to characterize such polyphonic events as ruptures at all, then the insurrection that occured in Detroit in July 1967 was just that. The riot led to calls for more “law and order” policies from across the political spectrum as well as across the color line. This sentiment extended all the way to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who addressed the nation during the riot and asserted that “the criminals who committed these acts of violence against the people deserve to be punished—and they must be punished.” For Michigan politicians, incarceration partially grew out of this moment: to the forces of law and order, the threat of Black insurrection needed to be quelled with razor wire and cages.
Ongoing deindustrialization and racial conflict were expressions of a larger social crisis, one that the state had no way to reverse. In this context, prisons emerged as a catch-all solution to these social problems. From 1973 – 2006, Michigan’s prison population skyrocketed from just under 8,000 to more than 52,000 and the state’s annual prison expenditures grew by nearly 5,000 percent, from $38 million to $1.87 billion. The state built 31 new prison facilities—more than any other midwestern state—and the number of Corrections employees rose by roughly seven times.12 In Michigan, mass incarceration is the rust belt’s twin.
Along with Michigan’s prison boom came a new carceral model. The racialized politics of “law and order” and the turn to “three strikes” and “throw-away-the-key” frames in correctional discourse closed off prospects for rehabilitation and reentry.13 These shifts also underwrote the massive expansion of the prison system, the building out of the carceral infrastructure necessary to contain the growing prison population. No longer a factory or a ward, the prison had become a warehouse.14 As a result, the prison’s relation to labor was fundamentally transformed.
The massive increase in corrections spending over the course of these decades went not only toward building new prisons but also to radically expanding the corrections workforce. Small towns and rural areas lobbied aggressively to be the lucky benefactors of a shiny new “Correctional Facility.” More than two-thirds of the state’s new facilities in this period were built in rural towns with predominantly white populations. Even today, when the bloated corrections budget has made “tough-on-crime” positions less tenable, there remains a consensus that “prisons equal jobs”—a consensus that reflects as much on the crisis of rural poverty as it does on the racism of rural Whites. This process has had two parallel effects. On the one hand, it has effectively redirected public funds and job opportunities away from deindustrialized, predominantly Black cities to rural, predominantly White towns.15 On the other hand, it has also effectively transferred jobs from the incarcerated population to those hired to oversee and administer them. In the era of mass incarceration, prisoners were, by and large, not producing commodities. Instead, their imprisonment produced the conditions for prison-guard labor.
Despite the ideological shift that justified extreme punishment against the Black poor and propertyless, the system still operated under extreme pressure. Overcrowding and abuse of prisoners were rampant. In 1981, this pressure exploded in a massive prisoner rebellion that began at Southern Michigan Prison in Jackson before spreading to Michigan Reformatory in Ionia and the Marquette Branch Prison in the Upper Peninsula.16 The fires left $5 million in “charred rubble” at the three prisons.17 This wave of riots became the pretense for a rapid increase in hiring even more Corrections officers. From 1985 to 1989, the number of Corrections employees grew at an average annual rate of 17.8 percent, causing the Corrections workforce to double in size. But this was only the most extreme leap in a more general trend: the percentage of the state-classified workforce employed in Corrections rose from 5 percent in 1973 to 32 percent in 2006. By 2013, the state had hired over 12,000 Corrections officers, all members of the guard union.18
The city of Ionia, Michigan, the site of one of these riots, is also one of the best examples of a small city where life is tied directly to the jobs provided by prisons (to the extent that life remains tied to the wage). In the wake of the 1981 riot, a New York Times reporter interviewed an Ionia resident who lived directly across the street from a prison. After describing how “out-of-towners are often alarmed when they visit,” she told the reporter that living next to the prison didn’t bother her at all because “really, it's like living across from a factory.” The same article quoted a university professor who pointed out how incarceration is “a major industry in Ionia … If you ask them if you want the prisons to move out, it's analogous to asking people in Flint if they want their auto plants to move out.”19 In the minds of some in Ionia, prisons were not only the economic solution to the crisis of deindustrialization but a direct replacement for the rusted out shells of the silent factories.
In 2002, Ionia “won” a sixth state prison, tying it with Huntsville, Texas for the most lockups in a single U.S. city. Even before the sixth prison opened, Ionia prisons held 5,094 prisoners and employed 1,584 workers. Thoroughly integrated into the city economy, one warden served on the city council while another was president of the city's fair association (the Ionia “Free Fair” claims to be the largest free county fair in the country). But a 2002 study on Ionia found evidence of increased rates of divorce, alcoholism, substance abuse, suicide, health problems, family violence, and other crimes associated with multi-generational prison communities.20 For families both inside and outside, the prisons of Ionia seemed to displace social problems rather than solve them.
Today, the prison system that the state of Michigan has built up over the past five decades is in crisis. One expression of this crisis are the 2016 and 2018 prisoner strikes—two flash-points of the prisoner resistance movement. Another is the system’s incapacity to sustain itself. Michigan’s behemoth carceral system stretches out across the occupied lands of the midwestern state. In 2018, it held almost 40,000 people inside its state prison walls. In stark contrast to the early 20th century, when prisoners were largely White (and the incarcerated population was significantly smaller), today Black prisoners are overrepresented by what is almost a six-to-one ratio.21 The Wolverine state’s “big house” is a massive warehouse of racialized populations that have been rendered surplus to the needs of state and capital, contained behind walls and barbed wire for decades on end—a life sentence to premature death by incarceration. Clearly, the prison serves a different purpose today than it did a century ago. While in 1920 75 percent of the incarcerated population was “employed,” by 2018 this figure was about 2 percent. Let’s take a closer look at this number.
Michigan State Industries (MSI) is the legal entity that administers prison labor in the Wolverine state. According to its 2018 annual report, 53 percent of MSI’s total sales is to the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC).22 In this sense, MSI is quite vital to the reproduction and sustainability of the current carceral system. As of this year, MSI reported having 13 factories at 10 different prisons across the state. Prisoners in Michigan produce everything from shoes and signs to mattresses, as well as license plates. By far, the most common occupation is the highly competitive and exceptionally marketable “sewing machine operator.” But the diversity of occupations should not distract from the scale of the operation: on any given day, only about 500 prisoners are working for MSI. That’s about 1.75 percent of the entire incarcerated population in Michigan state prisons. Furthermore, MSI has been operating at a deficit for at least the last five years. Only in 2018 did it attain its first positive cash balance. However, this recent “success” should take into account the difference between the cash value of MSI’s total net sales and the total cash value paid in prisoner wages. In fiscal year 2018, the dollar value of wages paid to prisoner workers is a mere 3.24 percent of total net sales. While MSI’s operations are seemingly vital for the sustainability of the Michigan carceral system, then, this labor quantitatively represents only a minor appendage of the MDOC system. As the MSI administrator Christopher J. Kamrada writes in his introductory note to the annual report, “[y]es, we have factories that make things, but those are byproducts of our real mission here.” Kamrada intends to suggest that this “real mission” is to prepare prisoners for the “real-world job market.”23 As we have shown, this narrative about the rehabilitative capacities of prison labor is nothing new. The difference is that, in contrast with the early 20th century, the state’s limited capacity to provide this “opportunity” for its massive prison population today makes out Kamrada’s argument to be little more than wishful thinking.
A parallel example of such wishful thinking is MDOC’s highly-publicized “vocational village” program. The stated purpose of this novel initiative is to provide vocational training to prisoners using “state-of-the-art” equipment located within Michigan prisons. The first of these opened in 2016, a second in 2017, and a third is currently being built in the state’s only women’s prison. Despite all the hype, MDOC’s two vocational villages, working at “full capacity,” provide vocational training for just 405 imprisoned workers. This gives us the remaining jobs from which we calculate the 2 percent figure above.
Most of the prisoner labor in Michigan actually falls outside of these two examples.24 Instead, reproductive labor like cooking and cleaning is far more common and important to the overall sustainability of each facility. These kind of statistics are hard to come by, but the Bellamy Creek prison kitchen might serve as a typical example. As of this year, sixty prisoners in Bellamy worked the kitchen shifts.25 Given that MDOC administers about two dozen other facilities, it is not far fetched to conclude that more than 1,400 people incarcerated in Michigan are doing this kind of labor. In other words, the reproductive labor done in prison kitchens throughout Michigan is quantitatively more significant than the kind of labor undertaken by MSI and the “vocational villages” combined. Furthermore, this kind of labor is also qualitatively more vital to the immediate reproduction of the prison population. It is no coincidence, then, that the 2016 prison riot at Kinross was sparked by striking kitchen workers.26
Today, MDOC’s administrators tell us that Michigan is on the leading edge of prison reform efforts. After all, they claim, they are cutting costs, reducing the prison population, and generating “novel” job opportunities. It is true that, since the late 2000s and especially in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the total number of people locked up in Michigan prisons, as well as the rate of incarceration, have decreased slightly.27 This means that the MDOC has closed prisons and tendentially decreased its budget. However, this trend has led to more overcrowding, as prisons are closed at a faster rate than prisoners are let out.28
It has also meant a turn to other forms of state supervision, like probation and parole. There are now 189,000 people on probation and parole in Michigan, and the state ranks 7th in the nation in the rate of “correctional control,” or the cumulative rate of all forms of incarceration including prisons, jails, probation, parole, and more.29 There are also 6,100 people currently confined by tethers, or electronic GPS ankle bracelets (“e-carceration”). The state justifies these transformations as cost-saving measures, since they shift the costs of supervision and compliance to the condemned, their families, and their support networks. In any case, probation, parole, and ankle monitoring are not alternatives to incarceration but incarceration in another form.30 And these systems have weaknesses that are already being exploited. Each year, for example, 500 tethers go “missing.” In some cases, the police’s attempts to track down absconders have escalated into car chases and deadly shootouts.31
There is a complex relationship between prison labor and the reproduction of the prison as a social institution—the prison must be understood in relation to the broader dynamics of racial capitalism. The passage from the factory to the warehouse in Michigan’s prisons highlights the transformation of the carceral system from a regime in which productive labor and rehabilitation were tightly linked to another in which productive labor and rehabilitation are largely sidelined. This process—from the factory to the warehouse—also names the direct transfer of the racialized working class of Detroit and Flint to rural prisons from which, for decades, there has been little hope of release. In some sense, the recent “rehabilitation of rehabilitation” in correctional discourse and the return to narratives of cost-cutting and the reformative power of work suggest a resuscitation to the earlier factory model. But these transformations have so far occurred largely at a discursive level—productive work remains a small part of the experience of prisoners within the MDOC. Although there will be no return to the conditions of the early 20th century, in this moment of bipartisan reform we expect such narratives to gain ground.
Today, the prisoner-workers that do the reproductive labor within prisons today can still strike a powerful blow to a system that is struggling to sustain itself. This is why an abolitionist strategy of disruption, proposed by prisoner-led organizations such as a Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, is key to challenging the discourse of work as “rehabilitation” and to increasing the political and fiscal costs of a system in crisis.32 As the warehouses we call prisons are gradually emptied out, new forms of resistance to these shifting mechanisms of capture and control are already emerging—from prison strikes to the destruction of electronic tethers.
1. On the Kinross riot and the national prisoner strikes, see Alejo Stark, “Like a Game of Chess: The Prison Strike and Abolitionist Strategy,” Abolition Journal 8 September 2018. and Rustbelt Abolition Radio’s audio documentary “Specters of Attica: Reflections from Inside a Michigan Prison Strike,” Making Contact 15 April 2018. For individual interviews with incarcerated participants at Kinross, see “Michigan’s Kinross Prison Strike: Reflections from Inside,” accessed 15 May 2019.
2. Brendan O’Connor, “Michigan Prison Labor Strikers Release Their Demands,” Jezebel 10 October 2016.
3. Charles Bright, The Powers that Punish: Prison and Politics in the Era of the “Big House,” 1920-1955 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).
4. Bright, The Powers that Punish, chap. 2.
5. Bright, The Powers that Punish, 3, 45.
6. Bright, The Powers that Punish, 250.
7. Bright, The Powers that Punish, 254.
8. Bright, The Powers that Punish, chap. 4.
9. Robert Brenner, “What is Good for Goldman Sachs is Good for America: The Origins of the Current Crisis,” translation of the prologue to the Spanish edition of his Economics of Global Turbulence (Madrid: Akal, 2009).
10. Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 23, 260.
11. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 144.
12. Citizens Research Council of Michigan, “Growth in Michigan’s Corrections System: Historical and Comparative Perspectives,” Report 350, June 2008.
13. Bright, The Powers that Punish, 316.
14. Rand Gould, “Why the Capitalist State Wants You to Think America’s Prisoner Warehousing System is an Industrial Complex When It’s Not,” 9 October 2013.
15. Heather Ann Thompson, “Unmaking the Motor City in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Journal of Law in Society 15 (2013): 41-61.
16. Israel L. Barak-Glantz, “The Anatomy of Another Prison Riot,” The Prison Journal 63.1 (1983): 3-23.
17. Lani Wiegland, “Michigan Prisons: Riot Causes Are Still There,” UPI 6 June 1981.
18. Thompson, “Unmaking the Motor City,” 57.
19. Associated Press, “Prisons Make People Secure in Ionia, Mich,” 27 December 1987.
20. Tracy Huling, “Building a Prison Economy in Rural America,” in Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, eds. Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind (New York: The New Press, 2002), 197-213.
21. Prison Policy Initiative, “Michigan Profile,” accessed 15 May 2019.
22. Michigan State Industries, “Annual Report: Building Bridges to Success” (2018).
23. Michigan State Industries, “Annual Report,” 1.
24. This is in large part because commodities produced behind prison walls are subject to unpredictable interruptions, such a s lockdowns. See James Kilgore, “Confronting Prison Slave Labor Camps and Other Myths,” Social Justice 28 August 2013.
25. Tim Requarth, “How Private Equity is Turning Public Prisons into Big Profits,” The Nation 30 April 2019.
26. Stark, “Like a Game of Chess.”
27. Prison Policy Initiative, “Michigan Profile,” accessed 15 May 2019.
28. Stark, “Like a Game of Chess.” On the limits of the “bipartisan consensus” on prison reform, see Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “The Worrying State of the Anti-Prison Movement,” Social Justice 23 February 2015.
29. Prison Policy Initiative, “Correctional Control 2018: Incarceration and supervision by state,” December 2018.
30. James Kilgore and Emmett Sanders, “Ankle Monitors Aren’t Humane: They’re Another Kind of Jail,” Wired 4 August 2018.
31. “When tethered convicts cut and run, police face dangerous chase”, MLive 23 April 2019.
32. Jared Ware, “I’m for Disruption: Interview with Prison Strike Organizer from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak,” Shadowproof 16 August 2018.