My Beautiful Wickedness


Prison labor…
February 18, 2008, 2:59 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Today, I’m thinking about the Auburn System. Look down in one of those inner paragraphs and all the stuff that those guys are making (for no wages, during the most volatile economic periods in US history)….doesn’t that just make you want to know how they are working? Being trained? Being supervised? How is this stuff being marketed, transported, sold? How is this related to the development of the canal system? Are these goods being sold to Ohio and Chicago down the Erie Canal? Or down to Albany and New York? You know, when these early prisons caught on fire, private corporations were always the firms that experienced the largest monetary loss…that just seems so — sadly modern to me.

Prisons as tourist destinations…like in Europe…

Prisons and the interaction/influence of the Auburn Theological Seminary in creating the modern prison system…

Prisons and the othering of the prisoner — weird outfits (they called regular clothes “citizens suits”) and weird haircuts and weird lockstep locomotion…

And of course, the big thing that no one really talks about, that the emphasis on prison control goes hand in hand with emancipation in the North and the West…

Finally, a town like Auburn…it’s been basically staking its economic livelihood on having a major prison in its midst since 1816. What does that do to a town? How does it shape a town?

Just what I’m thinking about today.

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2 Comments so far
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I don’t know if a parallel case would be of use or interest, but what you said about the prison system and emancipation reminds me of British policy in East Africa in the late 19th century.

Britain justified its colonial expansion with anti-slavery rhetoric and so were obliged (especially in light of domestic political opinion inside Britain) to end African slavery systems as the extended formal rule over different areas. The thing is they were also committed to ruling through existing elites, who were economically dependent on slave produce, and to having the colonies pay for themselves, which meant not dirupting existing commercial systems which were – again – dependent on slave production of crops for export (the clove plantations of Zanzibar is the specific example that leaps to mind.)

As a result, the British “freed” the slaves, but they didn’t arrange any sort of land distribution to allow them to become economically independent – which would have upset the local elites. They also passed and enforced stringent anti-vagrancy laws to prevent the freed slave from moving around in search of better opportunities. The British policy was to ensure that the former slaves continued as a wage labor force in service to their former owners.

It just sounded like the same thing in different clothes to me – a rhetoric of freedom used to justify forms of social and labor control.

Comment by Gerald

Neat! I mean, sad, but interesting. I know that this was the phenom in the British Caribbean (I’m most conversant with Jamaica and Barbados) but I didn’t know enough about empire in Africa to know that this was something happening there as well. It seems like a commonality among post-emancipatory societies — yet another way that the development of “modern” free-market capitalism is more like a zombie than a phoenix rising.

Comment by bridgett




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