This essay suggests what a labor-based history of the U.S. carceral state in the twentieth century might look like. In particular, it argues that the bifurcation of prison studies into examinations of life “behind the walls” and the place of incarceration in the society at large obscures the central role punishment plays in mediating labor relations and the labor market in modern America. The best emerging studies of the prison, however, manage to fuse an “inside” and “outside” history of incarceration. Labor historians can help reckon with the costs of the mass incarceration crisis of the last forty years by exploring the place of the “prison-industrial complex” within the neoliberal and postindustrial political economy that has reshaped American labor relations during the same period.

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