Women prisoners after a day working, Arizona, US
At a recent Spectre journal event, editor Charlie Post pointed out that neither left class reductionists nor liberal identitarians situate mass incarceration in the development of capitalism. Calvin John Smiley, one of the speakers, responded that intersectionality is the “marrying of these different arguments into an overlapping theoretical framework. ”
At best, intersectionality describes mass incarceration but does not explain it. The prison population is overwhelmingly black and overwhelmingly working-class. But why are prisoners at the intersection of race and class?
Any theoretical framework which situates mass incarceration in the development of capitalism must understand prisons as sites of social reproduction and prisoners as a reserve army of labour.
What is distinct about the reserve army of labour is that its workers sell their labour power at a lower price. Under capitalism, this labour-reserve is racialised, not only by employers but also by workers. Workers fend off labour market competition by racialising those who are undercutting their wages. Employers sort ‘superior’ workers from the ‘inferior’ ones on the basis of fictional racial characteristics.
As a result of racialised oppression, workers in the reserve army of labour are discriminated against in employment, housing, and education. And disparity in these areas is what accounts for working-class people of colour being over-represented in the prison population.
But the prison population itself is a reserve army of labour, because of the conditions by which it reproduces labour power. Prison labour power costs less to reproduce than ordinary labour power and will always serve to undercut the general wage level.
While capitalism perpetuates mass incarceration through the production of racial differences, mass incarceration perpetuates capitalist relations of production through the guaranteed (re)production of a reserve army of labour.
The continued existence of a scab army of labour drives wages down in the long term; provides cheap labour for the state, if not the private sector; and provides technologically backward industries the low-cost labour they need to maintain their profitability.
In 2015, union-busting laws introduced by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker coincided with the state’s enlistment of prison labour to perform landscaping and maintenance tasks across the state - tasks that had historically been performed by unionised public sector employees. The effect of the deployment of prisoners as a scab army of labour is not just a downward pressure on wage levels in the public sector, but on the market price for labour more generally.
As Smiley argued, even if capitalists don’t hire prison labour, the public sector benefits greatly from cheap prison labour. During the pandemic, New York inmates were paid 10 to 62 cents an hour to make the state’s own brand of hand sanitiser – which they reportedly were not allowed to use because the alcohol content made it contraband for prisoners.
Prison labour is cheap because of how its labour power is reproduced. Outside of the context of a prison, it would not be feasible for a factory worker to be paid 10 to 62 cents an hour for manufacturing hand sanitiser. Such a low wage would not allow the worker to maintain a household, where women shoulder most of the domestic labour that refreshes a worker’s labour power and enables him to return to work the next day. The worker would also not be able to raise a family on that wage, which would affect the reproduction of new workers for capital.
In a prison, the prisoner often performs his own domestic labour as part of a larger regime to maintain and operate the complex. The daily schedule of inmates in North Carolina gives an insight into how prisons institutionalise reproductive labour. “At 3:30 AM, the first inmates are awakened. They are the kitchen workers who get up to prepare the morning meal… All inmate workers report to their jobs at 7:30 AM…Inmates work in the kitchen, license tag plant or laundry, or perform maintenance or janitorial tasks.”
Because of the unique conditions under which labour power is reproduced in a prison, prison labour becomes a reserve army of labour in its own right. It does not merely draw from a pre-existing racialised reserve army of labour. Mass incarceration enables capitalist relations of production to survive. Any anti-capitalist programme must necessarily be an anti-carceral one.