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.
Between the Market and the State: The Problem of Prison Labor in the New Deal
MATTHEW PEHL is an associate professor of history at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. His book, The Making of Working-Class Religion, was published in 2016. He is currently working on a labor history of police officers during the “urban crisis” of the late 1960s and 1970s. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Matthew Pehl; Between the Market and the State: The Problem of Prison Labor in the New Deal. Labor 1 May 2019; 16 (2): 77–97. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/15476715-7323746
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