Document 19: Kate Richards O'Hare, Prison labor for private profit: survey and report on the prison labor situation: submitted to the Joint Committee on Prison Labor of the Union-Made Garment Manufacturers' Association of America and the United Garment Workers of America ([New York, N.Y.]: Joint Committee on Prison Labor, [1925]).


        In 1924, at the request of the Joint Committee on Prison Labor of the Union-Made Garment Manufacturers' Association of America and the United Garment Workers of America, O'Hare conducted a nationwide survey of the prison-labor system. This report, originally published in the Daily News Record (New York City) on June 29, 1925, detailed the abuses of the prison contract system. In twenty states, private industry--mainly concentrated in work garment production--contracted with the state for convict labor, O'Hare reported, using prison facilities as tax-supported factories. Since prison contractors negotiated directly with the state for prisoner labor, the wages they paid the state were significantly lower than those paid to unionized (and even non-union) laborers outside the prison, increasing the prison contractors' profits exponentially. O'Hare contended that through the "task" system, states essentially reliquinshed all disciplinary power to contractors, whose sole goal was maximum production, thereby eliminating any possiblity for prisoner rehabilitiation. O'Hare argued that not only were the prisoners and their families hurt by convict contract labor, but so were the state, industry, and all unionized and non-unionized workers.

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Prison Labor

Private Profit




of the


and the


At the request of the Joint Committee on Prison Labor, Mrs. K. R. O'Hare, who is better equipped to furnish first-hand information concerning prison labor than anyone in this country, prepared and presented a most comprehensive survey and report concerning conditions as they exist in many American prisons and the various systems used to exploit convict labor for private profit.

The report was published in the Daily News Record, of New York City, on June 29, 1925, and this reprint is made for general distribution in the hope that it will serve to acquaint the American public with the unfairness and abuses of the prison contract labor system.


Reprinted from the
of New York
Issue of June 29, 1925

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(Reprinted from the Daily News Record)



Kate Richards O'Hare Reports on
Situation to Joint Committee on
Prison Labor


In 1923 One Firm Alone Turned Out
16,000,000 Shirts in 17 Plants
It Controls


And Other Apparel Sold in Open
Markets in Competition
With Free Labor's Goods


Convict labor has been concentrated to a very large degree in the production of work garments, and in 1928, twenty states employed all, or a very large share of their convicts in this industry, and all but four of the others to a lesser degree, it is stated by Kate Richards O'Hare in a report on the prison labor situation submitted to the Joint Committee on Prison Labor of the Union-Made Garment Manufacturers' Association of America and the United Garment Workers' of America.

The members of this joint committee are Oscar Berman, president of The Crown Overall Manufacturing Co., chairman; T. A. Rickert, general president of the United Garment Workers of America; Stanley A. Sweet, president of Sweet, Orr & Co., Inc.; A. E. Larned, president of Larned Carter & Co.; B. A. Larger, general secretary of the United Garment Workers' of America, and Robert J. Noren, general secretary of the Union-Made Garment Manufacturers' Association of America.

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"One single prison labor contracting firm, in 1923, produced in the seventeen prison factories it controls about 16,000,000 work shirts," the report states. "Other smaller operators combined produced as many more shirts, and in addition, millions of overalls, children's play suits, underwear and women's house dresses. All of these millions of garments were sold in the open markets in competition with the goods produced by free labor and manufacturing carried on under normal business conditions."

The report points out that some of the chain stores, because of their great distributing capacity, are the largest dealers in prison-made goods.

"The prison labor contractor makes many times the profit on prison-made garments that is made by the legitimate manufacturer," the report says, adding that "neither the jobber, nor the retail merchant, nor the consumer gets anything approximating a fair division of the gains."

The report goes on to state that "if prison labor for private gain were eliminated from our prisons, the steel barred gates would open to modern science, which would enter and do for that combination of social diseases what it has done in other fields of social health."

In conclusion, the report declares that "the labor of every prisoner in this country can be utilized under the 'state use' system producing supplies needed by state institutions and those of the larger municipalities."


The report in full is as follows:

"According to the data supplied by the United States Census Bureau in 1922, there were 202,545 persons incarcerated in the penal institutions of this country. About half this number were in prisons, reformatories and penitentiaries, all of whom had been sentenced to serve their prison terms at 'hard labor.' This mandate of 'hard labor' as a means of punishing criminals and delinquents has been made the foundation upon which the least known, most richly tax-subsidized and the most profitable industry in the United States has been built. 'Hard labor' has been the means of political corruption, prison abuses, social degeneracy and incomprehensive private profits by the system now generally used, of public officials contracting for the sale of the labor of convicts to manufacturers, who produce commodities in prison factories for sale in the open markets.

"No real census of the number of convicts sentenced to 'hard labor' who are engaged in the manufacture of commodities for private gain has ever been made. All efforts to compile such data have been extremely superficial, the warden's word for the number of prisoners so employed being taken without verification, and for obvious reasons the number has always been grossly understated. But based on these biased and inaccurate reports during the year of 1922, of the 79,105 convicts in penitentiaries alone, 47,199 were engaged in the manufacture of goods to be sold in the open markets and for private gain.

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"Three systems of transferring convict labor to prison labor contractors are used in various states. Kentucky, Alabama, Maryland, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Delaware, Virginia, New Hampshire and Maine, use what is called the 'contract' system, under which the state sells the labor of the convict direct to the contractor for a given sum per day. The states of Connecticut, Wyoming, Tennessee, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Vermont, Indiana, Nebraska and Massachusetts, use what is known as the 'piece price' system under which the contractor pays the state an agreed price for each piece or article made by prisoners. Under both the 'contract' and the 'piece price' systems, the contractors supply their own raw materials. Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Texas, Iowa, North Dakota, Kansas, California, Louisiana, Arkansas, South Carolina, Illinois and South Dakota, use what is known as the 'public account' system, under which the state engages in manufacture on its own account, buying the raw materials, manufacturing and marketing the goods. All states except New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio, make use of this system to some extent, it having been adopted in the various states because of the public aversion to the evils of the 'contract' and 'piece price' systems. But in operation it has failed to prove a reform, and the prison labor contractors have not been eliminated. They now simply act as the state's agent in marketing the goods, and they continue to receive all the profits and escape all the risks.


"As early as 1879 the abuses arising from the exploitation of convict labor for private profits were recognized and investigating committees of the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey declared that 'while the production of convict labor, when compared to the entire mechanical industry of the nation, is insignificant, its concentration upon a few branches of industry may seriously injure the citizens engaged in these industries.' Convict labor has been concentrated to a very large degree in the production of work garments, and in 1923, twenty states employed all, or a very large share, of their convicts in this industry, and all but four of the others to a lesser degree. One single prison labor contracting firm, in 1923, produced in the seventeen prison factories it controls, about 16,000,000 work shirts. Other smaller operators combined produced as many more shirts, and in addition millions of overalls, childrens' play-suits, underwear and women's house-dresses. All of these millions of garments were sold in the open markets in competition with the goods produced by free labor and manufacturing carried on under normal business conditions.

"The exploitation of convict labor is the most richly tax-subsidized industry in existence. The taxpayers of the several states provide the funds to build expensive prison plants. It is doubtful if any state has less than $1,000,000 invested in prison plants, and such investments run up to $10,000,000 in some states. In these astoundingly
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expensive prison plants the presumed function of penal institutions is entirely overlooked and ignored, and quite overshadowed by what should be merely incidental in penal administration. Where the exploitation of convict labor is carried on for private gain the prisons are not operated to treat or cure, reform or educate criminals, or to send them back to society better fitted for decent citizenship. The primary object is to produce profits for private interests. The interests and welfare of the convicts and of society are given no intelligent consideration.

"When the terrifically expensive prison plants have been built from funds raised by taxation they are handed over to the prison labor contractors under contracts which seem so illogical and unbusinesslike that it is hard to believe that sane men with the slightest business ability would enter into them, or that the taxpayers would submit to them. The contract between the state of Oklahoma and the largest prison labor contracting corporation in the world is typical. It provides that the state of Oklahoma shall establish a plant at the State Penitentiary at McAlester for the manufacture of work shirts and women's house-dresses; that the state shall provide suitable shop and storage rooms, heated, lighted and ventilated; furnish the necessary electric power to operate the plant; furnish cutting tables, benches and other necessary fixtures; keep the inmates well fed, clothed, housed and under good discipline, enforce the 'task' set by the contractors, and transport all raw and finished materials from the railroad station to the prison, and back again.

"The normal wage paid by a legitimate manufacturer, plus his overhead expense, for the making of a dozen shirts is from $2.00 to $2.90 per dozen. The prison labor contractor pays the state fifty cents to sixty cents per dozen for exactly the same labor and overhead. Under this contract practically all of the overhead costs of production are carried by the taxpayers, and the wages paid are only about one-fifth the normal wage paid in the garment industry, thus giving the prison labor contractor the richest tax-subsidy ever enjoyed by any industry in the history of this country.


"Making the production of commodities for private gain the primary object of prison administration has a natural tendency to take the discipline and administration of punishment out of the hands of public officials and vest it in the employes of the prison labor contractor. In every prison where goods are manufactured for sale in the open markets the 'task' system is used, and in actual practice it is the prison labor contractor who sets the amount of the task and determines the kind and severity of the punishments that shall be administered to force the prisoners to produce it. The task is always set at the very limit of the productive capacity of the strongest and most skillful workers driven by the most brutal punishments. This in every prison is a far greater production than free workers achieve working under the best conditions.

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"And prisoners always work under the worst possible conditions. They are always half starved. The same politicians who sell them into chattel slavery also expend the appropriations that the taxpayers provide for the prisoners' food, and prison food is always insufficient, for the most part spoiled and decayed, and improperly cooked and served. The prisoner eats meat that is full of maggots, dried fruit and oatmeal infested with worms, beans inhabited by weevils, and macaroni that is filled with bugs, not to mention other things not mentioned in polite society that are served in the prisoners' food. Spoiled and decayed food can be bought for a tenth of the price of good food, it can be fed to convicts because they can not complain, and prison officials are not fussy about a few bugs and worms, more or less, when big profits are at stake. Prisoners are poisoned by bad air, prevailing prison architecture making decent ventilation impossible. They are weakened by lack of exercise, and sapped by confinement in disease breeding cells; they are harried by fear; tormented by sex hunger, and always depressed and unhappy. Among the harried slaves in every prison workshop are cripples and defectives, degenerates and tuberculars, epileptics, and dements, and only a small percentage are what, under ordinary conditions, are classed as normal. Yet there is no limit, not even torture, to which the contractor's foreman may not go in inflicting mental and physical punishment to force abnormal human beings working under abnormal conditions to produce an abnormal amount of goods.

"Legislative investigations conducted in many states have verified the statements of ex-convicts who have dared to tell their stories that prisoners are beaten, subjected to the 'water-cure,' hung up by the wrists, starved, tortured by thirst, chained to rings, thrown into solitary confinement and shut in dungeons. Inherent in the prison system as now administered is the fact that convicts are absolutely helpless; they have no protection from the most barbarous abuses; there is no way they can make their voices heard over the indifference and prejudice that surrounds them, and there is no one to whom they can appeal for protection and redress for the most terrible cruelties and abuses, except through the very men who commit them. It is well known to all who have given the slightest study to prison administration that the great majority of prison cruelties and abuses of corporal punishment have nothing to do with bad behavior or disorderly conduct of the prisoners, but with their inability to produce the 'task.'

"Even toned-down and understated reports of prison brutalities and abuses are usually disbelieved by the average citizen, because they think that such things cannot be true. They feel that it is contrary to human nature for men to be so wantonly stupid and brutal. And they are right ! It is contrary to normal human nature, but the mass of under prison employes, and many of the 'higher-ups' are not normal. We are just beginning to realize the prevalence of abnormal psychology, and we are discovering deviates from the normal in the most unexpected places. Only the most advanced physicians and psychologists know
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how large the percentage is of cases of arrested development, psychic trauma, degeneracy and sex perversion. And prisons are the only places, with the possible exception of the old-style insane asylum, where these unfortunates can work and earn a living without coming in conflict with the law, or meeting social censure. There is no other place of employment where these men and women with sick minds and diseased souls can exist unrecognized and unmolested. A long process of natural selection has made prisons places of refuge, and the only possible means of livelihood for these abnormal human beings who are no more to be blamed for their abnormalities than the insane are to be held responsible for their insanity, but who are manifestly unfit to have helpless human beings in their power.


"The general idea prevails that convict labor is inefficient and has a low producing capacity, but the April, 1924, number of the Monthly Review of the Federal Bureau of Statistics gave conclusive data disproving this theory. About 9,000, a very small percentage, of the convicts engaged in producing commodities for sale were studied, but these 9,000 convicts during the year 1923, produced goods to the value of $29,000,000. The average daily production for each prisoner was $12.50, and the contractors paid the states an average of $1.09 per day for their labor. At a most conservative estimate, these convicts engaged in making garments in prison factories actually earned at non-union wages about $6 per day, the states received $1.09, and the prisoners received about 1 cents per day, which the states paid. The difference between the $6 wage the prisoners earn and the $1.09 which the prison labor contractors paid is the contractors' profit, in addition to the overhead costs of production which the taxpayers carry. It is around this enormous profit that most prison abuses center, and from it comes the socially dangerous political corruption. It takes no great degree of intelligence and business acumen to understand that, when public officials enter into such obviously one-sided contracts, they must either be utterly lacking in the most elemental business sense, or open to the grave suspicion of sharing the profits.

"The enormous profits produced by prison labor in plants built and maintained by the taxpayers' money not only do not benefit the taxpayers and the commonwealth, but neither do they care for the prisoner's family. Ninety per cent of all the prisoners in our penal institutions come from the working class, and the great majority of them from the poorest of the poor, from the poverty-stricken tenant farms, and from the unorganized, unskilled dwellers in the city slums. The part that poverty plays in making them criminals is just beginning to be realized, and more and more intelligent people are beginning to grasp the fact that squalor, poverty, want, and economic insecurity are large factors in breeding and training criminals.

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"It takes little knowledge of the lives of the very poor, and less imagination, to realize the ghastly tragedy that settles down on a working class family when the bread-winner runs afoul of the law. There is the mad, and usually hopeless, struggle to get bonds, the heart-breaking efforts to secure legal defense and court costs, the crushing blow of conviction, and the weary struggle to take up life again harassed by debts, pinched by poverty, blackened by shame, and robbed of the breadwinner. Whether the convict is innocent or guilty, whether his crime was great or small, whether others suffered by it, or whether society has the right to punish the law-breaker, means nothing to the convict's family. Bread for hungry mouths, shelter for shame-bowed heads, and clothing to cover poverty pinched bodies are all that really matter to them.

"It may be just that the judge should sentence the offender to prison at 'hard labor' and the elected officials who enforced the mandate may be right. Certainly no sane person objects to the prisoner being required to work, no convict wants to be idle, but every decent-minded person who gives the subject any thought objects to having the prisoner exploited for the private profit of a prison labor contractor while the prisoner's family starves. Every day that the average prisoner works in a prison garment factory he actually earns about $6 for which the state receives $1.09, he receives 1 cents, and his family receives absolutely nothing. The prison labor contractor not only secures the fruit of the prisoner's labor, but the very life and future of his family as well. And while the contractors and politicians grind their enormous profits from the labor of the prisoner, his family goes down in the social abyss of poverty and want and the state breeds a new crop of paupers, prostitutes, and criminals.


"The justification given by the men who reap the profits of convict labor for the whole anti-social system is that it teaches prisoners 'habits of industry.' But prison labor for private profit fails, as in all other things, in this that should be the primary object of a prison sentence. Human beings cannot be taught habits of industry by brutal punishments, or trained to respect honest labor by being made a chattel slave. Slaves were never industrious or efficient workers, there was no incentive to make them so, and to the extent that men have won the power to enjoy the fruits of their labor they have learned to respect it and to develop habits of efficient industry. The productions of garments in a prison factory does not teach the men employed at it anything that will be in the least useful in earning an honest living when released. Garment making, particularly the type of garments made in prison, is not a man's job, because practically all of the operating in free factories is done by women. A man can operate a power sewing machine making shirts for ten years in a prison factory and have learned nothing that can be of the slightest value to him in normal life.

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"The production of commodities for sale, for private gain, by convict labor in tax-subsidized prison factories places both free, law-abiding labor and legitimate manufacturers in competition that is grossly unfair. The American citizen who works in the garment industry today is not forced to work in competition with the famous 'pauper labor of Europe,' but in competition with chattel slave labor that is tax-supported, thereby forcing down the standards of living, and placing American citizens in direct competition with the lowest paid labor in the world. The legitimate manufacturer who pays his own overhead, pays taxes to carry the overhead of the prison labor contractor, and pays his employes living wages cannot meet the prices of the tax-subsidized exploiter of slave labor.

"Short-sighted jobbers distribute prison-made goods under the delusion that in the slightly lower prices they secure they are adding to their profits, overlooking entirely that fact, that what they may gain in cut prices they lose in increased taxation. They also fail to realize that anything that reduces the amount of wages earned by free workers lowers the volume of trade, and causes business stagnation. They also seem blind to the fact that the share of excessive profits on convict labor which the contractor gives them is disgracefully small. Short-sighted merchants retail prison-made goods because of the slightly lower prices or more attractive terms which the prison labor contractor or the unscrupulous jobber offers, and they quite overlook the fact that convicts buy no goods from them, and that every free worker they help throw out of employment means the direct loss of a customer. Some of the chain stores, because of their great distributing capacity are the largest dealers in prison-made goods. When short-sighted merchants have bought all of the prison-made products they can handle, the prison labor contractors dump the balance at greatly reduced prices to the chain stores. They use them to undersell and slash the prices in competition with the deluded merchants who have whetted the knife to cut their own throats. The prison labor contractor makes many times the profit on prison-made garments that is made by the legitimate manufacturer. Neither the jobber, nor the retail merchant, nor the consumer gets anything approximating a fair division of the gains.


"In a careful analysis of the prison labor situation we find approximately this:

" 'These win: Prison labor contractors, unscrupulous politicians and chain stores.'

" 'These lose: Manufacturers, jobbers, retail merchants, consumers, honest public officials, tax-payers, organized labor, unorganized labor, farmers, prisoners and prisoners' families.'

"Only a few people in the United States profit financially by convict labor and all the balance of the 110,000,000 lose financially as well as in all other things that make for social progress and well being.

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"Of far greater moment than the financial injustices involved is the matter of public health. Prisoners are so largely recruited from the lower strata of society that they are almost universally the victims of the communicable diseases bred in poverty, squalor, ignorance and vice. The percentage of venereal diseases runs abnormally high, trachoma is most common, particularly in the South and among negro convicts, and the styles of architecture make prisons incubators for tuberculosis among the subnormal, underfed and overworked prisoners. In few, if any, of the prisons where garments are manufactured, is there any adequate system of physical examinations, segregation and treatment of communicable diseases. Prisoners suffering from all sorts of filthy and dangerous ailments handle the garments, cough and spit on them, use them to wipe infected eyes and pus-exuding sores, and then they go into the market without disinfection to carry the germs of deadly diseases to the merchants' counters and the people's homes.

"Perhaps the greatest of all social crimes inherent in the existing methods of exploiting convict labor is that it stays the wheels of progress and shuts science out of the prisons. Science has created a new world during the last century, it has revolutionized most of our social institutions, and nowhere are its achievements more marvelous than in the realms of social health. Physical and mental hygiene have made almost unbelievable strides, modern therapy and surgery approach the miraculous, but convict labor profits shut them out of our prisons. If prison labor for private gain were eliminated from our prisons, the steel barred gates would open to modern science which would enter and do for that combination of social diseases what it has done in other fields of social health. There can be no real progress in penal reform until science enters and cleans up these social pest holes, and enlightened public opinion demands a keener perception of social responsibility.


"The men who profit by prison labor have carefully fostered the myth that the elimination of the prison labor contractor would mean idleness for the prisoners, and incentive for more crime and higher taxes, all of which is utter nonsense. The labor of every prisoner in this country can be utilized under the 'state use' system producing supplies needed by state institutions and those of the larger municipalities. Conservative estimates show that the Federal Government, the states and larger cities spend each year at least $1,250,000,000 for supplies that could just as well be made by prisoners and inmates of other public institutions. This amount is far beyond the productive capacity of convict labor if employed under the best possible conditions.

"If the state use system were installed in every state it would mean that prison labor would not be sold to private contractors, and that no prison-made goods would be sold in the open markets. It would also mean that no private interests could
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make a profit out of the sin, vice, crime and misery of human beings, and that the corrupting influences of capitalizing crime would be removed. Legitimate manufacturers and free labor would be free from unfair competition, and the tax-payers would be free from the burdens of subsidizing the prison labor contractors.

"Instead of profit-making being the main objective of our penal system, primary consideration would be given to the study, education, and reconstruction of our criminals. Our prisons would become great clinics, hospitals and training schools where anti-social and dangerous people might be fitted to take their proper place in society, and our penal institutions would become curative instead of merely punitive. The prisoners making goods for the use of the state, or its subdivisions, could be credited with the prevailing wage, charged a fair price for maintenance, and the balance of their earnings could be used to support their families, or to provide a capital on which to start life anew when released. Under this system supplies would cost the taxpayers less than we pay now, the prisoner would be returned to society better fitted for useful citizenship, the breeding of additional crime would be reduced to the minimum, public health would be safeguarded, free labor would be protected, private enterprise would be encouraged, honest merchants would be free from unfair competition, the public would be protected against contaminated merchandise, unemployment in the garment industry would be practically eliminated and the standard of American living and business sustained."

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NUMEROUS requests have been received from organizations and individuals for a list of brands and trade-marks of prison-made garments, so that the purchase of same may be avoided. It is utterly impossible to secure or compile such a list. Prison labor contractors do not want their garments known as prison-made, and for that reason a good many of the garments made in prisons carry no brands and are made up with plain labels. Those that are made with brands or trade-marks are changed from time to time, and it is impossible to keep up with these changes.

Fortunately, however, there is one sure way by which you can avoid wearing prison-made garments, and that is by buying garments bearing the Union Label of the United Garment Workers of America. The "Union Label" is your guarantee that the merchandise is the product of well paid, free labor, working under ideal conditions, and is your absolute protection against disease-laden garments made in prisons under the most horrible and shocking conditions.


For additional copies of this reprint, write to

          B. A. LARGER, General Secretary,
                     United Garment Workers of America,
                     619 Bible House, New York City,

or to

           ROBERT J. NOREN, General Secretary,
                      Union-Made Garment Mfrs. Association of America,
                      557 Monadnock Bldg., Chicago, Ill.



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