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The Prison as a Segmented Labor Market: Ethnographic Insights into Penal Labor Structure and Practice

Sat, August 11, 4:30 to 6:10pm, Pennsylvania Convention Center, Floor: Level 100, 104B

Abstract

Portrayals of penal labor in academic, political, and popular media accounts commonly approach prisoner work as monolithic. Debates over the efficacy or ethics of punitive labor often inherently regard prisoners as a singular group or class. Similarly, many classic and contemporary film and television depictions illustrate only the most basic prisoner tasks, such as highway cleanup, chow hall service, or menial labor like breaking rocks or digging trenches. The result is a popular image of carceral labor as distinct—and distant—from the everyday work of the free world, limited in scope and devoid of worker agency. In truth, however, the expansive captive labor force in the U.S. engages in a wide array of tasks, at varying levels of specialization, on behalf of public and private interests alike. The majority of the nation’s prisoners (of the approximately 1.5 million individuals in state and federal prison facilities nationwide) work during their time behind bars. Yet, the realities of prison work remain largely in the shadows. Drawing on an 18-month ethnography and over 80 in-depth interviews conducted within one medium security, men’s state prison facility called Sunbelt State Penitentiary, this paper—a facet of a larger dissertation project—illuminates the diverse and stratified world of prisoner work. It describes the multifaceted internal labor market, emphasizing prisoners’ own words in outlining a system of “folk rankings” of jobs, which informs their understandings of work and self-image, as well as their practical strategies in navigating this complex institution.

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