Prisons and universities: from exploitation to solidarity

  • November 2, 2019

Education & Emancipation

The similarities in the economic positions of grad workers and prison laborers provide the possibility for a radical alliance challenging the logic of 21st century capital.

In August 2017, on the eve of my own entry into the university system as a composition instructor and doctoral student, I decided to take a look at what was then the newest episode of Rust Belt Abolition Radio. Wracked with anxiety at the thought of leaving my career as a valet captain for the new and confusing world of higher education, I concluded that an interesting podcast and a cigarette would calm my nerves.

This turned out to be the case, but what I did not know at the time was that the words of then incarcerated intellectual Harold HH Gonzales, known to abolitionists both for his theorizing as well as his involvement in the 2016 unrest at the Kinross Correctional Facility in northern Michigan, would increasingly form the bedrock of my own thinking both as a graduate worker organizer and abolitionist.

Gonzales notes that the American prison system and education system share a common logic, and are permanently imbricated with each other. From one angle, we can consider the school to prison pipeline, in which poor children and children of color are exposed to enhanced disciplinary measures and dismal education outcomes in a way that essentially shuttles them into prison.

On the other hand, we can see how the education system from kindergarten to higher education tracks students into their role in society, either as prisoners, office workers, CEOs, politicians, etc. For Gonzales, myself, and others, it is these two disciplinary systems, the prison and the university, which serve the dual purpose of developing human capital as well as extracting surplus value from increasingly exploitative labor practices.

From my perspective as a person concerned with both prison abolition and emancipatory education, the intricate connections between the two systems are as immediately obvious as they are paradoxical. For abolitionists and radical educators, to the extent that the two groups are not already connected, it is crucial to consider how struggles within and against the university must contend with those within and against the prison in order to meaningfully challenge the logic of 21st century capital.

A system of parasitic governance

We should consider the links between the university and the prison system as both a political problematic as well as a strategic opening for resistance to neoliberal capitalism, specifically in the form of solidarity between graduate student workers and imprisoned laborers.

Prisons and universities are both hugely economically productive insofar as they manage to obscure and mystify their own labor conditions, specifically by denying their laborers the status and title of laborers as such. This is to say that both prison labor and academic labor produce bountiful surplus value and do so largely by making illegible the exploitation which powers their economic production.

In the case of prisoners, their work is rhetorically constructed as part and parcel of either their sentence or their rehabilitation. In the case of graduate workers their work for the university is constructed as an integral part of their education itself, and the opportunity to labor for the university is presented as itself a form of education. In both cases, we see that the institution is economically productive insofar as it manages to obscure that it houses workers at all, and that labor struggles within are rendered illegible by the erasure of the workers as, just that, workers.

The outcome of this practice is a situation known to all students of Marx, that the hyper exploitation of academic workers and prisoners, in fact, imbues them with potent productive power, opening a space for radical theorizing and direct action.

In Carceral Capitalism, abolitionist activist and writer Jackie Wang notes that prison labor has become an increasingly important element of the United States economy, and that the prison system has over time come to supplant and replace the American welfare state. I note Wang specifically because her argument has become foundational not only to how I understand the prison system, but also my sense of what it means to set up an abolitionist politics.

Following Wang, we understand the carceral state as a continuation of the institution of Atlantic slavery, a means of forcibly extracting value from the labor of racialized — especially Black — populations. On an even darker note, we also see theories of the prison system as a means of disposing so-called “surplus populations,” a system of managing social inequality wherein people who are deemed economically non-viable are removed from their communities and killed over time.

Wang and others note that this phenomenon is part of a larger system of parasitic governance, where the state itself functions as a mechanism for the extraction of value and the maximization of economic gains with profound consequences for human and nonhuman life. What is most important to note is that the prison system has consistently increased in size and scope by 500 percent over the last 40 years, specifically by way of increasingly harsh and lengthy sentences for drug crimes, which disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities.

Slavery is indeed legal in all 50 states as long as the person is incarcerated, and the Centre for Research on Globalization has noted that mass incarceration and prison labor has made the US an attractive location for investment for employers which would otherwise have looked to the developing world for cheap labor.

Put simply, as deindustrialization and automation have increasingly rendered wide swaths of the workforce economically unnecessary, the prison system has become the mechanism via which these — largely Black and Brown — people are again made economically productive.

Prisons, universities and labor power

The role of the prison system in neoliberal racial capitalism is simple. It is a system wherein populations rendered economically unnecessary by automation, deindustrialization, and the like are removed from society and either made economically productive by virtue of their status as essentially free labor, or warehoused and killed.

In the logic of neoliberalism, some lives quite literally have no value, in that the market value of their labor is deemed either below the given minimum wage or below the overall cost of the welfare benefits they receive. This means that, quite literally, in the logic of neoliberalism the only logical conclusion is that we must either put such a person to work at a rate where they can produce a profit, or simply kill them.

As horrifying as it sounds, a cursory glance at prison policy reveals that this is indeed the political paradigm we are living through today. It is important here to note that neoliberalism is not limited to the United States; it is now the dominant paradigm of governance across the globe. Yet, other nations have not seen the same explosion in their prison population as the United States.

To explain this phenomenon, we recall that the prototype for the American penal system, Atlantic chattel slavery, also serves as the foundation for American governance and politics. From this perspective, we see that the United States has come to increasingly use slave labor to buttress its economy because it remains and has always been a society based on slavery.

Theorists of abolition and graduate workers alike must contend with this observation in two ways. First, by recognizing how the prison system and the university system are economic and political engines by virtue of their exploitative practices, but also that the struggle for a democratic university is impossible without the undoing of the carceral state.

To further flesh out this connection, we return to my earlier suggestion that prisons and universities both serve the purpose of extracting surplus value from otherwise economically irrelevant bodies — racialized minorities and the poor in one case, undergraduate and graduate students in the other. Political theorist Wendy Brown argues in Undoing the Demos that the primary function of neoliberalism is to render “politics” or “democracy” unintelligible ideas by reducing all human affairs to the competition of individual interests.

While seemingly distant from the subject at hand, Brown’s comment on the role of the university in this process is indispensable to our theorizing in this case. For Brown, the university is first and foremost a place where the labor power of an individual student is enhanced and increases in value over time. A university’s rating is now primarily based on the job placements and careers of its students, which is to say that university admissions are increasingly based on a neoliberal model of risk versus reward, where students are admitted based on whether they are likely to complete their studies and be successful after graduation.

Recalling Wang’s argument that the expansion of the carceral state compensates for the shrinking welfare state, we observe that decreased state investment in higher education leaves universities increasingly beholden to the will of private donors insofar as they depend on them for funding.

This phenomenon, combined with decreased student aid and a consequential explosion of student lending, has created a university which primarily serves the purpose of producing qualified and highly indebted workers for the new knowledge economy. This is to say that universities, much like prisons, do the work of plugging the holes in neoliberal capitalism, producing the workers that the system needs and often doing research that primarily benefits corporate donors and sponsors.

The university, much like the prison system, is able to function in this capacity through a system of extreme labor exploitation. Over the last few decades, graduate workers and adjunct instructors have taken on increasingly larger shares of the work performed in the university, including but not limited to research, teaching, low level administration and institutional service.

Thus, a university is paradoxically a much more cost-effective vehicle for knowledge production than the private sector, because academic workers produce highly valuable knowledge, and highly valuable human capital, at wages that are often near or below subsistence level. Take for example a graduate worker who teaches technical communication courses at a public university. Their students, having used loans to finance tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, will enter the workplace with the soft skills the corporate sector is looking for, at an extremely low labor cost.

Viewed from this perspective, the economic position of the graduate student worker and the imprisoned worker are strikingly similar. In both cases, they labor within an institution which works to resolve the contradictions of neoliberal capitalism, an institution which is able to fulfill this role by obscuring and mystifying the conditions of their labor, and working to remove its laborers from the status of being a laborer, which then deprives them of labor rights or protections.

The possibility for solidarity

What would seem strange at first glance, is that a person like myself with two graduate degrees could come to play a similar economic role to a person who has been convicted of two counts of armed robbery. It would be nothing short of disgusting to compare the living and working conditions of a prisoner to a graduate student; my point here is specifically that in structural and economic terms a graduate worker and a prisoner have much in common.

Further, the structurally overdetermined nature of my own condition as a graduate laborer demonstrates Harold Gonzales’s point in two ways, first that I enjoy freedoms and privileges dreamed about by any prisoner, and that policy initiatives and the underlying structure of neoliberal capitalism pointed me to graduate school much in the same way that my incarcerated colleagues were pointed to prison. The differences between our positions show the similarities, in that while I can choose to leave my job as a graduate student, I must then immediately contend with my student debt — American graduate students are exempt from student loan payments while enrolled. Thus, while I am free in a way a prisoner is not, I am not free in the way we would conventionally understand the term.

After all, many graduate students enter into this exploitative scenario in hopes of improving their own labor power, and ostensibly attaining a tenure-track or full-time position at some point in the future. Without belaboring the point, it seems absurd that anyone would sign up to work for $19,000 a year for six years in hopes of a possible middle-class career in the future, until we consider what economic forces might be shaping that person’s reality.

In my own case, it is clear that my own entry into academic work is conditioned and shaped by social and economic forces in much the same fashion as my currently and formerly incarcerated colleagues and friends, a script which seems almost mechanical in its inevitability. It is in this very problematic that I locate the conditions of possibility for solidarity.

To demonstrate the productive power of both prisons laborers and academic workers, it is helpful to examine a current of resistance within each system — prison strikes and increased labor organizing activity by graduate students in American universities — and the swift and unforgiving response of each respective system demonstrates the threat presented by these instances of internal resistance.

To reiterate an earlier point, both systems function by constructing their laborers as “prisoners” or “students” who labor within a disciplinary institution for their own benefit. For further evidence of this point, we observe that in both resistance movements, a core demand of the participants is recognition of their status as workers. This is to say that the demand of both movements is twofold, both an end to various exploitations and abuses by way of and following a demystification of the labor conditions in both the two respective systems.

Prison strikes

On September 9, 2016, the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising, prisoners across the country initiated a series of strikes which eventually included 24,000 prisoners in 24 states. Organized in part by the IWW’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and the Free Alabama Movement, the strikes were widely motivated by conditions within prisons, poor wages, and in some states even the institution of “prison slavery,” the practice whereby prisoners are compelled to work for free, which is legal in several states, including Texas and Florida, where the majority of the nation’s prisoners are housed.

The strikes in 2016 began in the Holman Prison in Alabama, allegedly led by Free Alabama founder Melvin Ray. They began in the wake of a prison riot that involved the stabbing of a guard and several fires, and were intended as a non-violent means of addressing prisoners’ concerns.

It is important to note that the prison strikes of 2016 and also 2018 were planned, envisioned and coordinated by prisoners themselves, and that the intellectual work and theorizing which guided them has been shaped by the experience of prisoners themselves living and working within the carceral system. This is to say that the capacity to theorize the prison system and resistance within it has been not only demonstrated by prisoners, but also that prisoners themselves have shown that they should be the authority in terms of how we interpret the carceral state’s purpose and operation. To quote a message circulated by participating prisoners: “We will no longer participate in this slave system where economics are placed over our humanity. All that is required is for industry workers, kitchen workers, and hall runners to sit down.”

Poor labor conditions, violence, lack of medical resources, and the like are not new within the prison system. Riots and other unrest in response to these problems is also far from a new development. What is a new development, however, is the aforementioned economic shift wherein prison labor and construction has become a more and more important part of the economy.

This is to say that as prison labor and prison slavery become more economically productive and important, the labor power — and in turn, strike power — of incarcerated laborers grows. Prison strikes have thus demonstrated that indeed, all that is required is for incarcerated laborers to take stock of their own structural position and sit down. The strikes were ultimately quelled, but labor activism within the penal system continues to this day, growing in size, scope, and theoretical sophistication.

University strikes

Within the university system, the story is much the same. While the status of graduate students as workers remains in many cases obscured and mystified, a growing labor movement amongst graduate students at institutions both public and private has begun to create a compelling narrative of labor exploitation and abuse within the university.

As I write this, the University of Pittsburgh has moved to block a union authorization vote previously ordered by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, the latest development in a long and contentious battle. At the University of Chicago, graduate workers organized this past summer and went on strike in an effort to convince university administration to bargain with them directly, and graduate workers at Harvard are voting on a strike authorization as I write this, in response to frustration over a long and arduous contract negotiation process. Increased exploitation of graduate workers has also increased our labor power and created a strategic opening for radical theorizing and organizing.

In their public statements and actions, graduate students have noted that more and more of the university’s daily operations have fallen on graduate students, alongside widespread sexual harassment and abuses of power. Much like the penal system has increasingly relied on prisoner labor to sustain itself and make a productive contribution to the overall economy, the university has also increased its reliance on graduate student and adjunct labor, who receives wages at or often below subsistence level.

This means that, much like the prison system, the increased exploitation of graduate workers in fact enhances their labor power and strike power, thus opening a new space for resistance. Specifically by learning from our incarcerated colleagues and the radical theorizing they conduct in response to their living and working conditions, we can begin to see strategic openings and cracks in the university system by developing our own radical consciousness.

At the same time as prisoners have been organizing and striking, graduate students have been doing the same, increasingly at elite private universities. Due to the structure of labor laws and collective bargaining in the United States, graduate workers at universities had only been considered to be “employees” by the National Labor Relations Board since a 2016 reversal of an earlier rule which declare them to not be employees, and thus ineligible for unionization or collective bargaining.

As of now, the NLRB has proposed reversing that decision and again denying graduate workers at private universities labor rights. Under federal law, a University of Chicago graduate student and a prisoner hypothetically are both legally denied any labor protections.

The most recent strike by graduate workers at the University of Chicago demonstrated an important fact about the recent wave of organizing and strikes by graduate workers, that even for a group of ostensibly highly educated people, the theorizing which guides their resistance has been developed in response to their labor conditions and their own experience of the university system, as opposed to being an abstract exercise which takes place in a vacuum.

What is to be done?

To summarize, here are what I take to be the most important connections between the labor paradigm of the prison system and that of the university.

  1. Prisons and universities are institutions that use extreme labor exploitation to resolve the contradictions of neoliberal capitalism.
  2. These institutions accomplish this exploitation by obscuring the labor conditions that fuel them and removing their laborers from their status as workers.
  3. Laws, cultural attitudes, and other social forces seek to remove laborers from the subject position of “worker,” both in the case of prisoners as well as graduate students.
  4. Increased labor exploitation over time enhances the labor power of these workers, increasing their capacity for strikes and other forms of direct resistance.
  5. Theorizing on the part of workers which is developed from their own experience of their labor, as opposed to being direct by intellectual work outside of their institutions or systems.

In light of these observations, my prescription is simple. The heart of the American system of neoliberal capitalism is the carceral state and its continuation of Atlantic chattel slavery. Thus, the paradigms which graduate worker organizers like myself struggle against find both their origin and their logical endpoint in the penal system.

Rather than being a social issue or a malfunctioning system we need to clean up, the prison system is the basis of our political order. As university workers, we must also contend with the roots of the American university in slavery, and how the surplus wealth created by enslaved Africans served as the condition of possibility for the construction of the knowledge production institutions we currently work and learn in.

Rather than being distant relatives united by a few parallel logics, the university and the prison are always imbricated with each other via their shared roots in slavery. In practice, my suggestion here is that rather than only looking to auto workers, nurses, miners and the like as our example as we build a new labor movement of graduate workers, we focus on the example of the Free Alabama Movement, the IWOC, and others as the blueprint for how we can jam the engines of capital.

And, if this did not go without saying, we must value solidarity with our incarcerated colleagues as highly as we value our commitments of solidarity with other workers.

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Walter Lucken IV

Walter Lucken IV is a composition instructor and doctoral student studying English at Wayne State University and Vice President of Graduate Employees Organizing Committee. He also serves on the coordinating committee of the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions, organizes and hosts courses and programming with Hamtramck Free School, and does his best to help out with the project of articulating and carrying out an abolitionist politics.

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