Saturday, 10 January 2009

Socialists on the Criminal Justice System – Eugene V Debs

This, the fourth in my series examining writings by various famous socialists that relate to the criminal justice system look at an article entitled Prison Labor: Its Effect on Industry and Trade which can be found on the Marxist Internet Archive at http:///, which is a speech given in 1899 in New York.

He starts the article by discussing the conditions in capitalist society for workers and saying that gives rise to “…a thousand streams of vice and crime…” Because of this, “Jails, workhouses, reformatories and penitentiaries have been crowded with victims, and the question how to control these institutions and their unfortunate inmates is challenging the most serious thought of the most advanced nations on the globe.”

He briefly mentions that he would have preferred the title the other way round because “…I am convinced that the prison problem is rooted in the present system of industry and trade, carried forward, as it is, purely for private profit without the slightest regard to the effect upon those engaged in it…”

He then moves on to note that it is universally accepted that prison contract labour undermines ‘free labour’, “…but it should not be overlooked that prison labor itself an effect and not a cause, and that convict labor is recruited almost wholly from the propertyless, wage-working class and that the inhuman system which has reduced a comparative few from enforced idleness to crime, has sunk the whole mass of labor to the dead level of industrial servitude.”

He then goes on to state, what I pointed out in the previous post in this series is a key proposition of a Marxist approach to crime, that the main cause of crime and other problems in society is the economic system of capitalism.

Debs then moves on to the history of prisons where he argues “In the earlier days punishment was the sole purpose of imprisonment. Offenders against the ruling class must pay the penalty in prison cell, which, not infrequently, was equipped with instruments of torture. With the civilising process came the idea of the reformation of the culprit, and this idea prompts every investigation made of the reformation of the culprit, and this idea prompts every investigation made of the latter-day problem. The inmates must be set to work for their own good, no less than for the good of the state.” Debs is wrong on at least one count, the very first sentence is inaccurate as prisons were originally for collect debts, not punishment in and of itself. Whilst I agree that the idea of convict labour does follow from the idea of rehabilitation, this whole paragraph is not the best one in this piece.

After discussing a report of thirty years earlier on prison labour, Debs then goes on to state that “Considered in his most favourable light, the convict is a scourge to himself, a menace to society and a burden to industry, and whatever system of convict labor may be tried, it will ultimately fail of its purpose at reformation of the criminal or the relief of industry as long as thousands of ‘free labourers’, who have committed no crime, are unable to get work and make an honest living”, and then also adds, “Not long ago I visited a penitentiary in which a convict expressed regret that his sentence was soon to expire. Where was he to go, and what was he to do?”

He then discusses another report from about 20 years ago in Ohio and summarises it thus “What a commentary on the capitalist competitive system! First, men were forced into idleness. Gradually they are driven to the extremity of begging or stealing. Having still a spark of pride and self-respect they steal and are sent to jail. The first sentence seals their doom. The brand of Cain is upon them. They are identified with the criminal class. Society, whose victims they are, has exiled them forever…From first to last these unfortunates, the victims of social malformation, are made the subject of speculation and traffic”

He points out in a report from South Carolina that “Out of 285 prisoners employed by one company, 128, or more than 40 per cent, died as the result, largely, of brutal treatment.” And from a report from Tennessee, “Here, as elsewhere, the convicts, themselves brutally treated, were used as a means of dragging the whole mine – working class down to their crime-cursed condition. The Tennessee Coal and Iron Company leased the convicts for the express purpose of forcing the wages of miners down to the point of subsistence.”

Debs moves on to discuss another prison labour system, “The system of manufacturing for the use of state, county and municipal institutions, adopted by the state of New York, is an improvement upon those hitherto in effect, but it is certain to develop serious objections in the course of time. With the use of modern machinery the limited demand will soon be supplied and then what? It may be in order to suggest that the prisoners could be employed in making shoes and clothes for the destitute poor and school books for their children and many other articles which the poor sorely need but are unable to buy.”

“Developing along this line it would only be a question of time until the state would be manufacturing all things for the use of the people, and then perhaps the inquiry would be pertinent: If the state can give men steady employment after they commit crime, and manufacturing can be carried forward successfully by their labor, why can it not give them employment before they are driven to that extremity, thereby preventing them from becoming criminals?”

Debs then discusses how prison labour affects free labour and notes that whilst it can undermine ‘free labour’, “Prison labor is not accountable for the appalling increase in insanity, in suicide, in murder, in prostitution and a thousand other forms of vice and crime which pollute every fountain and contaminate every stream designed to bless the world”

“Prison labor did not create our army of unemployed, but has been recruited from its ranks, and both owe their existence to the same social and economic system.”
He then gets to the crux of issue, “Why is prison labor preferred to ‘free labor?’ Simply because it is cheaper; it yields more profit to the man who buys, exploits and sells it… Prison labor is preferred because it is cheap. So with child labor. It is not a question of prison labor, or of child labor, but of cheap labor.”

What is the effect of this? “The prison labourer produces by machinery in abundance but does not consume… So with the vast army of workers whose wage grows smaller as the productive capacity of labor increases, and then society is afflicted with overproduction, the result of underconsumption. What follows? The panic. Factories close down, wage-workers are idle and suffer, middle-class business men are forced into bankruptcy, the army of tramps is increased, vice and crime are rampant and prisons and work-houses are filled to overflowing as are sewers when the streets of cities are deluged with floods.”

In summary, “Prison labor, like all cheap labor, is at first a source of profit to the capitalist, but finally turns into a two-edged sword that cuts into and destroys the system that produced it.”

Debs explains that this is a castigation of the capitalist system, and outlines an alternative,
“Co-operative labor will be the basis of the new social system, and this will be for use and not for profit. Labor will no longer be bought and sold. Industrial slavery will cease. For every man there will be the equal right to work with every other man and each will receive the fruit of his labor. Then we shall have economic equality. Involuntary idleness will be a horror of the past. Poverty will relax its grip.”

“The army of tramps will be disbanded because the prolific womb which now warms these unfortunates into life will become barren. Prisons will be depopulated and the prison labor problem solved.”

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