Prison Industrial Complex

Courtesy of Denver Public Library – Western History Museum

The oldest and still-flagship prison in the Colorado system, Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP), has been the longest-lasting and most important site of controversy in the state about the character of incarceration and the economic role of corrections facilities.[1] Beginning in the nineteenth century, most prominently in the early to mid-twentieth century, CSP’s fiscal management has been debated—even as the prison maintained a monopoly over several industries—by a legislature torn between limiting the economic impact that the prison had on the state’s economy and limiting the burden the penitentiary represented to the tax base of Colorado. The legislative and political history of labor in Colorado prisons sheds light upon the differing motivations of stakeholders. How did the wardens perceive prison industry? Did the Colorado general assembly agree with them? How did their opinions change over time? The answers to these questions unravel the implications, costs, and benefits of prisons as industrial operations.

Among the leading voices in public discussion of prison labor have been Colorado labor unions and private businesses, who alike have had a strong economic incentive to oppose the proliferation of industry in prisons. The unions were the first parties to oppose the use of prisoners in industry because their members were threatened by the ability of prisons, offering below-market wages, to produce cheaper goods. In the early twentieth century prisoners were paid cents a day, while union members in manufacturing jobs were being paid per hour, with the significant difference in labor costs creating ‘savings’ on retail prices for prison-produced goods.[2]  The products of Colorado prisons were cheaper than the goods made by private and union competitors, galvanizing these groups to seek political assistance.

The objections brought by unions and private businesses against prison labor advocates often included moral considerations.  The opposition claimed that the conditions convict laborers experienced were inhumane and that DOC officials were committing both larceny and profiteering.[3] The unions pressed their attack upon the Colorado DOC by comparing the industries in which CSP was involved, such as canning and construction, to those that the New York DOC operated, such as firemen’s gear and other state-used goods.[4]  The unions argued that adopting a state-use policy for prison goods, on the New York model, would leave the market for private labor relatively unaffected by prison labor. In response to heavy pressure from organized labor, the State of Colorado passed laws in the 1910s attempting to prevent state prisons from competing with private industry and outlawing the practice of contract labor in which prisons sold their prisoners’ labor to outside interests at negotiated rates.  Yet even with the major reforms achieved in the 1910’s, unmarked prison goods still flooded the Colorado market from neighboring states.

Although early twentieth-century efforts to reform prison industries moved forward on the state level with some small success, it was soon apparent that Federal intervention would be needed to regulate the economic role of incarceration facilities more fully. Across the nation, reports of prisons selling their goods to private vendors who then hid the convict-made nature of their goods from their customers aroused public concern. Because they were able to sell their products without maker’s marks, prisons were able to avoid revealing the human cost of their efficiency. Leftist author and prison reformer Kate Richards O’Hare discussed such abuses in her prison memoir, encouraging notice of parallel experiences throughout the nation as reform movements took off in the 1920’s.[5]  In part due to O’Hare’s scathing remarks about the treatment of women prisoners in state-run labor contracts, women’s groups began to lobby nationally for reforms in prisons in the federal arena.[6]  O’Hare’s description of the life of a contracted inmate is poignant:

The women convicts have produced hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of wealth in the prison workshop, but not a penny of it has been expended in furnishing a hospital to give civilized care to the women when they have been physically wrecked by the driven labor of the contract shop.[7]


And I found that, under the guise of punishment for crime and in the name of reformation of criminals, a tremendously profitable form of chattel slavery has grown up in this country. When I reached prison I found that for all practical purposes, I had been converted by the United States Department of Justice into a chattel slave.[8]

O’Hare’s description of horrendous conditions health conditions, specific to the institution where she resided, nonetheless offer a glimpse into what the life of an incarcerated and contracted person was like nationwide.


Federal intervention in prison industry

In 1929, in response to great pressure from labor unions, the Women’s Clubs of America, and private businesses, Herbert Hoover signed a law prohibiting the sale of convict-made goods outside of a penitentiary’s home state. This instrument, the Hawes-Cooper Bill, gave prisons in all states five years to comply with its regulations. Warden Roy Best of CSP noted in his 1932, 1934, and 1936 warden’s reports to the state that CSP’s cannery profits were declining rapidly after the deployment of the Hawes-Cooper regulations.[9] The dismantling of contract labor and the passing of the Hawes-Copper Bill marked a new era for prison wardens and labor managers in Colorado.  Now they would have to be ever more creative to reach the goals of self-sufficiency, even profitability.

Prior to the passing of the Hawes-Cooper Bill, Wardens Cleghorn and Tynan had advanced a new program of prison labor entitled the ‘Honor Roads’ program.[10]  Inmates who demonstrated their non-resistance to return to incarceration were allowed to work off of CSP grounds on state highways, free of armed guards, walls, and other security measures.[11] Warden Tynan, using convict labor, had completed a fifty-mile stretch of highway cut into rock with the inmates trained in explosives, excavation, and drilling. Tynan claimed that the $250,000 project would have cost $327,000 if he had paid the inmates the high wages demanded by free laborers (in 2016 dollars $1,615,646.55 saved by using inmate labor).[12]  The warden’s savings reports reveal a common practice among prison managers in Colorado history in its report of  the amount they did not have to pay their inmates as a benefit to the state. According to Tynan, there was no financial reason that the state should seek to pay free laborers. CSP inmates eventually constructed much of the early highway system in Colorado, but after the passage of the Hawes-Cooper Bill, the state’s principal prison was forced to retool its industrial and labor ventures. Wardens Cleghorn and Tynan had already laid the foundations for how CSP could serve the state, but it was Warden Roy Best who would need to direct the prison on its new trajectory.[13]

In 1936, Warden Best noted in his biennial report that in the cannery, the most profitable of all CSP industries in the early twentieth century, profits were declining and would continue to do so as the interstate market was closed.[14]  Prison administrators thereafter were blamed by the Colorado Legislature for being unable to sufficiently develop industries that would not violate the Hawes-Cooper bill during the five-year grace period, although funding for new development was not allocated.[15] The communications failure and policy difference between the Warden’s Office and the State Legislature underscore one of the major oversights of the prison industry system: prisons maintained industries for the purposes of lessening the tax burden of inmates, giving inmates vocational skills, and providing additional revenues for the state. If, for example, the prison were unable to maintain the low costs of the past, the warden would be criticized from Denver. In order for CSP to continue fulfilling its financial obligations to the state between 1929 and 1935 (the five-year Hawes-Cooper year grace period), the prison had to continue operating the industries the bill was intended to impair. In response to declining profits, therefore, in 1936 Roy Best signed the then largest license plate contract with the state in history, worth $59,206, shifting the principal focus of CSP industry for the next forty years to state-use manufacturing.[16]


Legislative battle for prison labor

Meanwhile, as the Colorado State Department of Corrections grew year after year—over 300% between 1900 and 1940—so did the distance between the perspectives of CSP’s wardens and of the state legislature.[17] When the United States finally emerged from the Great Depression and triumphed in both World and Korean wars, however, their mutually hostile economic attitudes began to soften once again. In 1961 Senator Harold McCormick was elected, albeit narrowly, to the Colorado General Assembly.  He then began a career of advocacy for the DOC.[18]  McCormick, as the representative for Cañon City, pushed forward several bills that heavily favored the prison industries beginning again to burgeon in Colorado. He promoted new and more stringent laws enabling easier incarceration of drug offenders and violent offenders, and is quoted as having said:

We want a tight system that can release a reformed lawbreaker on parole, yet keep the hardened criminal in prison for the protection of society. This makes sense both from a humanitarian and dollars-and-cents point of view,” as well as “Both the new Open Records Law and the splendid Drug Abuse Law of the last session are good examples of productive legislative studies.”[19]

These remarks in 1968 suggest McCormick’s complex motivations. The desire for a simpler, more streamlined prison system and a competing demand for higher levels of incarceration for drug offenses were fundamentally contradictory.  Meanwhile McCormick supported the Colorado DOC’s industry by passing protectionist bills designed to keep private industries from competing with the prisons. In 1974, for instance, other districts pressured the legislature to outsource the tag plant amid claims of lax standards and overcharging at the DOC, but McCormick successfully killed the bills designed to limit state-use industry, so securing CSP’s monopoly on license plates.[20] He was able meanwhile to win the Colorado State Legislature’s support for the proposed prison budget, but the struggle between the wardens and the leadership of the state about fiscal arrangements continued into the following years.

Even decades after national discussion of inhumane conditions and the victories won against prison labor in the early twentieth century, prisons continued to persist in one of the injustices against which O’Hare had passionately railed, including the absurdly low wages of convict-laborers. CSP’s Warden Tynan remained a proponent of using convicts to replace free workers on state projects.  Tynan noted that the reason his road works were so successful was his ability to pay his laborers next to nothing.[21]  Records from the late twentieth century show that the wage scales for inmates offered a minimum payment of $.15 and a maximum of $.6 per diem.[22] The minimal pay scale for the prisoners, with a mere daily six cents reserved for skilled and intensive labor, emphasizes that the system of prison management that emerged in the 1970’s and 1980’s is potentially problematic on several levels. As senators like Harold McCormick passed laws making it easier to incarcerate people for drug and firearms crimes, more and more convicts flooded into the prisons.[23] By the 1980s the disparity between operational costs—a metric that accounted for labor as well as other costs—had become extreme: Operations Expenses of the Colorado DOC Division of Correctional Industries amounted to $729,079 (with 441 convicts employed), and Gross Sales reached $4,976,000.[24] The financial state of the prison industries, the extremely low numbers of inmates employed, and the fact that the Colorado DOC was pleading with the state legislature for additional funding together demonstrate that state representatives had motives very different from the aims of the wardens of Colorado prisons.[25]

A broader account of modern American incarceration practices emphasizes this point. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow persuasively explains why state politicians in the  1970’s and 1980’s might have put such strain on their corrections systems: law enforcement and lawmaking bodies were under pressure to enter into the War on Drugs.[26]  Under policies such as mandatory minimum sentences, people were being incarcerated throughout the U.S in higher numbers and for longer periods than ever before. From Alexander’s point of view, because the prison system and the justice system at large are designed to entrap and control a particular group of people, the prison labor system represents a return to virtual chattel slavery for the high percentage of Americans put behind bars by the this anti-drug initiative. The local evidence of Cañon City’s prison industries affirms Alexander’s view that the profitability of state prisons is directly related to inmate’s minimal remuneration—and that this longstanding situation tends to perpetuate mass incarceration.

The constraint of incarcerated people, particularly people who were likely unemployed on the outside, to the manufacture of goods for the very organization that has taken their freedoms sits poorly with many critics, who note that this society cares so little for the well-being of those who have tripped and fallen that they must work to keep the very cells in which they are imprisoned. Despite the grim realities of prison labor, a glimmer of hope for change remains. The ideal that prisons could be a place where those citizens who have made mistakes can learn to better themselves frames the motorcycle workshops, horse corrals, dog pens, and leather workshops of Colorado’s prisons. The duty falls to the citizens of the State of Colorado to mold the industrial practices of their prisons into something that can truly benefit the people who need a second chance.


[1] Originally researched and drafted by Kian Alden.

[2] “Executive Board Has Clash over Prison Industry,” unattributed fragment, December 21, 1939, Royal Gorge Regional Museum (hereafter RGRM), “Prison Industry” folder.

[3] Department of Corrections; The penitentiary commissioner, F.A Reynolds, and the current warden were indicted in 1894. Reynolds had been found to have used prisoners to work his own property and to have hidden large sums of prison funds in the bank he owned. The warden had authorized the use of prisoners to work Reynold’s land. Elinor Myers McGinn, At Hard Labor: Inmate Labor at the Colorado State Penitentiary, 1871-1940, (New York: P. Lang, 1993), 89.

[4] McGinn, 86.

[5] McGinn, 91.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kate Richards O’Hare, In Prison (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1923; repr. Seattle: University of  Washington Press, 1977), 100.

[8] O’Hare, 69.

[9] State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1935-36, 8.

[10] McGinn, 98 and 111.

[11] McGinn, 111.

[12] McGinn, 115.

[13] Biennial Report. . .1935-36, 8.

[14] The Cannery was reported to have made over $250,000 over a two-year period in 1934-35: ibid.

[15] McGinn, 87.

[16] Estimated at $1,013,513.9 today.

[17] McGinn, 98.

[18] State of Colorado, General Assembly, Senate Joint Memorial 10-003 Memorializing Former Senator Harold McCormick, 2009.

[19] Unattributed fragment, 1968, RGRM, “McCormick Family” folder.

[20] Unattributed fragment, 1974, RGRM, “McCormick Family” folder.

[21] McGinn, 113.

[22] State of Colorado, Department of Corrections, Inmate Incentive Wage Committee, Inmate Incentive Wage Scale Report, 1970, 1.

[23] Unattributed fragment, 1969, RGRM, “McCormick Family” Folder.

[24] State of Colorado, Department of Corrections, Division of Correctional Industries, Annual Report Fiscal Year 1982-83, 36 and 43. Based on the operations expenses, and the number of inmates employed even if we assume that the OE is 100% comprised on inmate wages (unlikely) then the amount paid to each inmate per annum = $729,079/441 $1,653.24 per annum.

[25] Unattributed fragment, Cañon City Record, 1970, RGRM, “Prison Industries Folder.”

[26] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010), 71.