This essay explores the efforts of federal officials in the early days of the New Deal to regulate, reform, and standardize American systems of prison labor. Eager to curtail the convict-lease system and other inhumane prison practices, yet fearful of idle convicts, officials in the Department of Justice collaborated with Franklin Roosevelt’s new National Recovery Administration to create an industry “code” governing convict labor. Initially celebrated as a major step toward a humane and rational system of prison labor, the NRA code immediately ran afoul of powerful corporate groups, skeptical labor unions, and its own internal inconsistencies. Though the code was short-lived, it nevertheless bears study as the first effort to create a national framework for a system of rehabilitative—not profit-driven—prison labor.

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