Skip to content

A Hidden Source of Labor Extraction in Prisons


Grace Li (@g_y_li) is a Fellow in Law at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.

Prisons are full of associations, even as, by design, prisons control and limit the relationships of the people forced to live within them. The associations, or groups “pursuing a common purpose . . . by a course of collective action,” include affinity groups, peer education groups, lifers’ associations, prison reform organizations, and other collectives. Vital as these associations are to imprisoned people, they attest to more than the universal human need for community. They also cannot only be understood as acts of resistance, as ingeniously as these associations allow imprisoned people to navigate strict controls over almost every aspect of life, including associative life. These groups offer to members and others access to goods and services, such as food, financial support, physical security, education, news, and legal representation. The volume and scope of associations in prisons lay bare the diversity and extremity of needs that the state fails to meet. One might view the existence of the associations as a privilege the state extends to incarcerated people—making incarcerated people the consumers of this privilege. But the dynamics around associations in prison reveal them to be a way that prisons extract labor from incarcerated people, as well as an additional avenue of coercion and control within prisons.

Prisons routinely use the labor of incarcerated people to do what Noah Zatz terms “prison housework” and Erin Hatton describes as “regular” or “non-industry” work. Examples are the cooking and laundry necessary for daily life in the facilities, work done for meager pay typical in prisons, usually orders of magnitude lower than on the outside, and without the usual benefits, rights, and protections that should come with the status of worker. The labor that associations in prisons provide is related to this work but goes beyond it. Some of this labor supplements prison housework, such as by giving people access to additional food, which the state has a duty to provide. Other labor of associations serves the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional needs of people in prison. For example, an advocacy group teaching members about legislative parole reform offers a means for political organizing and education as well as ancillary effects like solidarity, mutual support, hope, and ways of being that go against the imposed “inmate status.” These positive effects contribute to the kind of growth, or “rehabilitation,” prisons are meant to facilitate, according to their stated missions.

The labor also differs in nature from prison housework in that it is initiated by incarcerated people themselves. It is done neither for pay nor directly for prison-run rehabilitative programs. The scope and goals of these associations are decided by the incarcerated people and tend to improve the lives of members and their communities. Though their purpose is not to aid or increase the power of the prisons, they may in fact facilitate prison operations. For example, prison reform organizations have passed down institutional knowledge about the extreme state violence in response to uprisings like Attica and developed alternate channels, like legal and political advocacy, for addressing prison conditions. In this sense, much of associations’ work may fall under an expansive understanding of what Tiffany Yang calls “prison maintenance”—in that it is needed to keep the prisons running smoothly.

The prisons’ need for these associations is evident in the fact that correctional staff allow them to exist. Prison officials often restrict groups from forming and meeting—sometimes for fear of members and leaders amassing power and overtaking the prison, and at other times out of administrative ease, to avoid the burden of escorting people around the facility and risking the turbulence that might come of movement and contact. Nonetheless, the staff allow such groups to operate because they rely upon them. They have relied on gang leaders or lifers to keep the peace, on organizations to run conflict resolution circles, and on peer education groups to address public health crises such as AIDS when the official prison line has been that sex is prohibited.

Even as they rely on the groups to, say, maintain harmony in the prison, another option to prevent conflict is to isolate everyone by simply locking them down in their cells. And while the groups nominally have a constitutional right to associate, in prison, constitutional rights are under-protected, and the in-prison grievance system is stacked against them. This sets up a coercive relationship between the state and the groups.

Incarcerated people are not only subject to the control and discretion of the state but also are limited to the markets the state constructs and regulates. The state chooses providers of food, medical care, telecommunications, and banking. For officially recognized goods and services, incarcerated end-users access segments of the market the state has decided to contract with. Even if incarcerated consumers access a wider market supplemented by in-prison associations and through gifts from family, the state controls which items are allowed in. There is also demand for the same civic needs in prison as on the outside—people in prison don’t just need beds, food, and doctors, but also news media, entertainment, avenues for volunteering and group identity. Because of state-imposed limits on access to the usual channels, associations provide access to knowledge (including legal education), security, and media. These transactions occur at the discretion of prison officials. Incarcerated consumers also have access through unauthorized associations known as gangs, as well as correctional officers and visitors, to “contraband,” or disallowed items, such as criminalized substances, alcohol, foods, certain literature, cellphones and their parts. The state regulates these markets through disciplining incarcerated suppliers and, at least officially, trying to stem the flow of goods, even while turning a blind eye to the illicit actions of its own staff.

When it comes to associations, the state is not only regulating the market for incarcerated consumers but is itself in the market for associations’ services, or indirectly benefits from them. In conjunction with the for-profit vendors it contracts with formally, it demands and uses, without pay, the services that associations of incarcerated people conceive of and provide. In return, the state allows the associations to operate.

One might be tempted to resolve this extractive relationship by suggesting that the state pay associations for their work. Associations’ work to provide basic needs surely should be paid, and fairly rather than at the usual prison rate. But the finances of associations in prison are strictly limited. Turning the associations into non-profits formally is not a solution either, as non-profits on the outside have faced depoliticization, which may go against some of the associations’ political goals.

Though the associations are not exactly like non-profits generally, considering them can teach us something about civil society more broadly. In and out of prison, the institutions and movements that make up civil society perform vital work in providing goods and services—as well as provide avenues for the indirect benefits of collectivity, such as building values and skills that contribute to democratic citizenry, allowing people to develop their identities, and cultivating social relationships outside of family, friend, and professional ones. But a political and legal system that seeks to enable human flourishing cannot rely on a patchwork approach by civil society for critical functions such as providing public goods. In prison, this is highlighted by the unique and recognized role the state must play as a supplier. On the outside, even if the state is not on the hook to the same extent, robust government infrastructures and oversight are necessary to respond to needs created by structural problems.

More generally, associations in prison engage in self-help and mutual aid, just as all communities do. The resilience and resourcefulness of people on the ground does not excuse the state from its responsibilities. As other options are stripped away in prison, the prison context acts as an extreme example highlighting broader failings of the state. The state instead should be assuring access to goods, services, and opportunities, rather than creating the conditions of scarcity that push people to other means, which can brilliantly, but only partially, supplement their need. Associations should not be substitutes for state provision of fundamental services. 

Seeing the state as a non-paying consumer of the benefits produced by the associations’ labor helps us take a more honest view of incarceration. Tallies of incarceration’s true costs should include this labor. Given the state’s duty to attend to the needs of those in its custody, its failure to do so further emphasizes incarceration’s moral unjustifiability. To fill the gap, the state takes advantage of some of the most disadvantaged groups: incarcerated people, who overwhelmingly are people of color, disabled, and already poor before incarceration. Associations’ persistence also suggests that incarceration cannot fulfill even its stated purposes. Those who still believe imprisonment rehabilitates or deters should know that it is often the relationships facilitated by associations of incarcerated people that help people, they report, heal and grow. Prisons only limit these relationships, which could flourish more easily with the freedoms and supports available on the outside.

Finally, associations in prison provide important intrinsic benefits and are not only tools to compensate for the lack of public provisions. One might imagine that if a state successfully provides for the basic needs of incarcerated people, then that might obviate the need for associations within prisons. But associations inevitably arise to mediate between individuals and the state. And collectivity and self-determination—virtues pursued within associations—are themselves vital. Any institution forbidding associations would be working against fundamentally human needs.