Installation view from Cameron Rowland, 91020000, Artists Space, New York, 2016 Photo: Adam Reich

Installation view of ‘Cameron Rowland: 91020000’ at Artists Space, New York (photo by Adam Reich)

What I saw when I stepped from the elevator and entered the hush of the Artists Space gallery was barely anything: a red raincoat on the wall, some honey-colored wood benches that looked as if they belonged in a courtroom, and some odd steel contraptions on the floor. Aside from the cluster of gallery workers sitting off to the left at small desks, the room seemed so starkly bare, I asked whether I was in the right place. I was.

Handed a guide to Cameron Rowland’s 91020000, I looked at its floor schematic and then began to see what other objects make up the show. There are actually two coats as well as matching trousers, hung side by side, one bright red and one chartreuse, both Nomex fire suits titled “1st Defense NFPA 1977, 2011” (2016). There is a large L-shaped, metal office desk with dark, faux-wood laminate on top (“Attica Series Desk,” 2016) — how did I miss that? The Shaker-style benches turn out to be made of oak wood and indeed are named “New York State Unified Court System” (2016) for being typically used in this state. Towards the back, away from the door, are several large metal rings, maybe four feet in diameter, some stacked on each other, one of them lying on a wooden pallet. These are manhole leveler rings cast by prisoners in the Elmira Correctional Facility (“Leveler (Extension) Rings for Manhole Openings,” 2016). It takes me a while to understand — I get there by reading the guide’s explanation that runs about eight pages of heavily footnoted text — that this show is about quiet acts of dehumanization.

Cameron Rowland, “1st Defense NFPA 1977, 2011” (2016), Nomex fire suit, distributed by CALPIA, 50 x 13 x 8 inches. Rental at cost “The Department of Corrections shall require of every able-bodied prisoner imprisoned in any state prison as many hours of faithful labor in each day and every day during his or her term of imprisonment as shall be prescribed by the rules and regulations of the Director of Corrections.” – California Penal Code § 2700. CC35933 is the customer number assigned to the nonprofit organization California College of the Arts upon registering with the CALPIA, the market name for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Prison Industry Authority. Inmates working for CALPIA produce orange Nomex fire suits for the state’s 4300 inmate wildland firefighters. (photo by Adam Reich, courtesy the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York)

The work makes an intellectually complex argument connecting the current forced labor of prison convicts, appropriated by the state, to America’s historical use of slave labor. Both forms of labor have generated wealth for the state, but the connection is more intimate than that. To quote Rowland: “The development of transport infrastructure and logistics was a precondition for the shipping of slaves across the Atlantic, and was the primary purpose of the slave and convict leased labor used to build U.S. railroads.”

Rowland recounts that although slaves were emancipated by the passage of the 13th constitutional amendment, immediately after its passage, laws were developed  (Black Codes) that effectively criminalized black life and made these former slaves into a labor source benefiting the governments that enacted these laws. Through the practice of leasing former slaves back to former slave owners, people who were private property transitioned to function, “as a kind of public property whose discounted labor benefited … governments … and corporations.” In essence, 91020000 concerns the ways and means by which, “Through an increasing set of capitalizations, people in prison have become part of a nexus of government economic interests.”

To capitalize someone or something, I discover, is to convert it into capital. In other words, Rowland contends that the prison system is premised on a practice of dehumanization similar to that which ideologically founded for the slave trade. In both cases, perversely, the labor that is stolen helps to construct and maintain a powerful economic system and its necessary infrastructure. In many states, the current economic system has become dependent on this labor and doesn’t blink when given the option of capitalizing its prisoners. That states now offer the commodities made by inmates to private nonprofit organizations, as, according to Rowland’s guide, New York began to do in 1991, entices these nonprofits (that are ostensibly initiated to carry out some public service) to be complicit in this exploitation.

Cameron Rowland, “Attica Series Desk” (2016), steel, powder coating, laminated particleboard, distributed by Corcraft, 60 x 71.5 x 28.75 inches. Rental at cost: The Attica Series Desk is manufactured by prisoners in Attica Correctional Facility. Prisoners seized control of the D-Yard in Attica from September 9th to 13th 1971. Following the inmates’ immediate demands for amnesty, the first in their list of practical proposals was to extend the enforcement of “the New York State minimum wage law to prison industries.” Inmates working in New York State prisons are currently paid $0.10 to $1.14 an hour. Inmates in Attica produce furniture for government offices throughout the state. This component of government administration depends on inmate labor. (photo by Adam Reich, courtesy the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York)

But how do we conceal the theft? The question that has to be posed when people are systematically disappeared is: Where do we hide the bodies? “In prison” is only part of the answer. The deeper, more sinister response is also the most seemingly benign: we abstract them so they become only sources of labor and wealth. We reduce them to lines in an actuarial table, an oblique reference in a statute, a number in a log book. We dissolve people into fungible assets.

The entire show mirrors this ethical catastrophe hiding in plain sight. Its title comes from the customer number assigned to Artists Space upon registering with Corcraft, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, Division of Industries, that sells products made by inmates.

“Disgorgement” (2016) looks to use the master’s tools to dismantle the house. It consists of documents affirming the establishment of a Reparations Purpose Trust (with Artists Space as grantor and Rowland as enforcer). The trust is funded by 90 shares of Aetna insurance company purchased by Artists space, shares that will be held until “the effective date of any official action by any branch of the United States government to make financial reparations for slavery.” It’s an uncanny gesture: using a legal and financial instrument to invest in a company that once issued slave insurance policies, thus making a small part of that company invested in providing restitution to the descendants of the people it indirectly harmed — or at least causes Aetna to be a co-signer of that hope.

To be clear, this work does not argue that many or most of the people in prison do not deserve to be there. That’s not the issue. The state use of prison labor is not the same practice as slavery, but it is an elaboration of a theme that founded this country. Several contemporary artists, including Nona Faustine, Kara Walker, Jefferson Pinder, have made work around the body, particularly the historicized, black body to remind us that the past is prologue and our bodies are always central to the story of this nation. The question of reparations, the racialized bias of the criminal justice system, policies on housing, employment, and education — they all contend with the question of how to recognize each other’s humanity and what to do once we manage that small but crucial thing.

Modernity’s practice of abstracting the body, of reducing it to property, to labor, to profit is our fundamental ethical failing. This show points to its effects on all the bodies no longer present or able to be seen. They are not even ghosts. They are poorer than ghosts, who at least can rage against the injustice of their dying and make their presence felt.

Cameron Rowland, “New York State Unified Court System” (2016), oak wood, distributed by Corcraft, 165 x 57.5 x  36 inches, rental at cost. Courtrooms throughout New York State use benches built by prisoners in Green Haven Correctional Facility. The court reproduces itself materially through the labor of those it sentences. (photo by Adam Reich, courtesy the artist and ESSEX STREET, New York)

Cameron Rowland: 91020000 continues at Artists Space (3rd Floor, 38 Greene St, Soho, Manhattan) through March 13. 

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The...

15 replies on “The Products of Forced Labor in US Prisons”

  1. …and here we are in 2016, with most black folk waiting in line to elect as President a person who in the 60s campaigned for a segregationist, in the 90s called them “super predators,” and today accepts hundreds of thousands of dollars from the private prison industry.*

    Louis Farrakhan —- love him or hate him — “How many of you are going to vote for Hillary Clinton? You don’t have to raise your hands. I do not blame you for wanting a female president, but that is a wicked woman. She can be sweet but so can you. And you know when you are sweet but playing a game. All of a sudden she knows about Trayvon Martin. All of a sudden—the boy’s been dead two years now—she talking about him like she met the mother and oh… this is Satan. And you fall for that crap? Most of you went to jail for having a little blunt. They arranged that—the Clintons. Mass incarceration came about under the Clintons, Don’t forget that. They call my young gang bangers super predators. And Black Lives Matter put it to her—she didn’t know how to handle that. Call you a super predator, that has no conscience, no sense of dignity like you are a dog, an animal. She gotta bring you to heel you my young brothers. This is what she said about you and she didn’t just say it—it became law and policy of the U.S. government under Bill Clinton and his wife, and now she is apologizing, but apologizing can’t bring back the broken families. Apologizing cant bring back those that been destroyed in prison life.”

    *Lobbyists for two major prison companies—Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group—are serving as top fundraisers for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Mouths lie, money doesn’t. You vote for Hillary, you vote for the industrial prison complex.

  2. Is the presumption that prison workers would not want the jobs? My (limited) information is that these jobs provide something valuable to the prisoners themselves- some sense of purpose, satisfaction, relief from the boredom of life in a cell. We may regret that so many are wasting lives in incarceration but that is a separate issue. And if the products of the prison workshops are often going to public sector uses – firefighters suits, government office furniture etc, it just seems like a sensible response to the circumstances.

    1. Dear Bob,

      Thanks for this, but it seems you have missed the central point of my argument. It’s not about whether being employed is useful for prisoners, or whether they like having jobs. Rather the piece and my review are asserting that the chief ethical failure is the one at the root of appropriating prisoners’ labor: turning living, breathing people into fungible assets, into profit. It’s dehumanizing and we should be ashamed that it happens in our names.

      1. Sort of like every other job I’ve had? I guess I don’t have the same sense of outrage, but the show looked great. Just thinking through the interesting ramifications if any of the works were to sell…

      2. While the morality of prisons, especially in the States is thrown off with the grotesqueness of privatized penitentiaries, convicts are still essentially property of the state. They have no voice at all….and we all like that it that way.

        Their choices deemed them unfit for living in the real world, yet they are not assets. it costs the tax-paying citizens or corporate sleeze $32,000 per year per convict to stay alive, eating, healthcare, and TV. Amidst their terrible punishment, they are allowed to work in some of the safest work areas known in history. I agree with Bob, actually no one is forcing them to work, it has always been a privilege that they choose.

        What part of breaking the monotony to work is more dehumanizing than already being a convicted felon? It’s actually always had the opposite effect because it allows them to participate in the functions of the real world. A Job.

        1. Dear Romanium,

          So if I understand you correctly if one commits a crime at the level of a felony and is convicted, one no longer deserves to be considered human or treated with the dignity normally accorded a human being?

          I’m not sure you understood the essence of my argument, nor see that the core calculus of an economic system that purports to be a rising tide that lifts all boats, is one of stealing the value of certain people’s labor, and conceptually reducing them to profit, then making the rest of us complicit in this system by benefiting from the smoothly paved roads, an extensive railroad system, cheaper goods, etc. that are the result.

  3. Mr. Rodney, with all due respect, you may be overreacting to the current conditions in prison comparing them to those in past generations. Having just completed “Slavery by Another Name,” by Douglas Blackmun, I recognize the pain you feel about the treatment of prisoners in times past. In my humble opinion, I think you, or perhaps the artists involved in this project, do harm to the cause of reparations by comparing the work prisoners do today making benches or desks to the truly inhuman forced labor conditions in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century. Blackmun made amazing use of historical records to tell a horrifying story of the way persons of color were arrested on the flimsiest of pretexts and then “sold”‘ to the operators of mines, plantations and labor camps. Kept in the sorriest of conditions, clothed in rags and hardly fed, their lives were short, miserable, and tragic.

    There is a lot to repair in our current system, but it truly does not compare to the horrors of the past.

    1. Hi Deep Thinker,

      Thanks for this. I have to say you are mistaken. I haven’t made a comparison. I say it very clearly in the article that this practice of stealing the labor of prisoners and dissolving them into abstract quantifications of profit is not the same as slavery, but is an elaboration on a theme that founded this nation. Saying that a two problems are generated by the same practice is not saying that they are similar problems. These are subtle but (at least for me) important differences.

      You talk about my response as being one of “pain” You say you recognize my pain. But I’m not making an emotional appeal; I’m making a logical one. I am saying that analytically you can trace the dehumanization of prisoners back to the practice of slavery. I’m not interested in trotting out a lists of horrors to compare with someone else’s list, but rather want readers to understand that, as Benjamin said “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”

      1. I guess the difference is too subtle for me to grasp. I am trying to understand. Would it be fair to consider our communicating here in the Hyperallergic comments ” a document of civilization”? If not, why not? If so, help me see the barbarism involved. (My ignorance might be barbaric, I suppose).

        1. I think Walter Benjamin was speaking in terms of metaphors, symbolic gestures of passages of time as documents. Every major event in civilization is paved with the blood of the less fortunate. Yada yada yada, we’re all animals

          1. Hi Deep,

            Romanium got it only somewhat correct. Luckily it’s not difficult to do some research to find out what Benjamin meant.

      2. Mr. Rodney, I have been thinking more about what you said about not comparing the present prison system with slavery. It seems to me you created a comparison by mentioning slavery. If I am discussing an object like a cat, and then make mention of a dog, the comparison is implicit. One is forced to register the comparison and contrast even if implicitly.

        You say there are important differences. Let me name one.

        As I understand it, we abhor slavery for many reasons, including among them the taking away another human’s freedom. Conviction and imprisonment take away freedom too, yet when properly administered, as a result of that human’s actions.

        Should prisoners be paid a market rate wage for their labors? Is that your point?

        1. Hi D. Thinker,

          Really if you are going to insist on addressing me formally, then call me Dr. Rodney, or better still, just call me “Seph.”

          Fair enough on a comparison between prison labor and slavery being implicit. I can agree with that.

          No, my point has little to do with how prisoners should be paid (though that might be helpful). My point is essentially (to quote the above article): “Modernity’s practice of abstracting the body, of reducing it to
          property, to labor, to profit is our fundamental ethical failing.” We consistently and callously dehumanize each other. Every paved road, every railroad track, every bit of infrastructure that in the cumulative sum constitutes “civilization” are documents (or records) of civilization. Most of these to my mind are built on some kind of barbarity, some form of dehumanization. Perhaps this practice started when we decided to sacrifice virgins to some god or gods, imagining another human being to be equal to expiation of our collective guilt.

          Your questions seem to come from a place of trying to understand what concrete thing, perhaps legal or policy action one might take to ameliorate this situation. I’m not advocating any of that. I’m arguing that we need to see the underlying attitude, the philosophical position we are taking and its ultimate ramifications for how we treat other human beings. My contention is that abstracting our humanity impoverishes us.

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