How might organized labor be engaged in ending mass incarceration? One approach is to emphasize how carceral labor is exploited as a substitute for rights-bearing “free labor.” But the mere threat of substitution does not ensure solidarity. A more promising avenue is to consider how carcerality itself extends into so-called “free” labor markets. Under this “carceral labor continuum,” anti-carceral unionism emerges not from broad concerns over economic substitution but instead from the practical demands of workplace organizing.
Since last summer, immigrants detained in California’s Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex detention centers have been on strike, demanding fair treatment as workers. Meanwhile, legal advocates have engaged in strategic policy campaigns and wage-and-hour litigation to support the strike from the outside. This partnership offers a valuable model for how solidarity and empowerment can blaze a path toward abolition.
Over the past decade, the Free Alabama Movement has led a series of escalating prison strikes that have attracted tens of thousands of incarcerated participants nationwide. While labor stoppages have been central to the movement’s growth, its strategies and demands extend far beyond the realm of work and wages.
For years, NYC developers have profited off mass incarceration by utilizing “body shops,” unregulated labor brokers that undercut unions by exploiting formerly incarcerated workers. To fight back, Laborers’ Local 79 is forging a new model of anti-carceral unionism.
A new participatory research project aims to build a nuanced, localized analysis of carceral labor by surveying incarcerated people in all fifty states about their experiences, insights, and demands.
Popular historical narratives often trace the origins of penal labor to the post-Civil War South. Yet as insightful and politically useful as this familiar story may be, it overlooks the vast system of forced penal servitude that took shape in the antebellum North. Untangling the nineteenth-century roots of mass incarceration and forced labor can help clarify the shifting dynamics of expropriation, exploitation, and racialization across the long history of the U.S. carceral state.
In this essay, the author draws on his experiences as an incarcerated organizer to argue for the importance of a Black abolitionist politic that resists both “work” and the adoption of the “worker” identity. Instead, the category of the slave-in-revolt is better suited to the project of abolitionist organizing.
How can we understand mass incarceration as a system of labor governance? This post introduces our new symposium on “carceral labor” by offering an empirical and conceptual overview of the different ways in which the carceral state structures and compels work, both in and beyond the prison.