Trafficking in Prisoners: Forerunners of the Modern Prison Industrial Complex


Scott Christianson, in his historical work With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America suggests that there is a connection not often seen when examining imprisonment, namely that between prison and slavery.  He observes that slavery has often been viewed as a form of punishment and also that prison systems have often resembled a form of slavery.  Similarly, Michael Hallett has arrived at a similar conclusion when discussing the connection between slavery, convict leasing and the modern growth of private prisons.

Christianson observes that early descriptions of Spanish and French slave trades often used the terms “slave” and “prisoner” interchangeably.  There is another obvious connection: one between prisoners, slaves and private profit.  Indeed, as well shall see shortly, “penal slavery” is a more apt description of American prisons, especially in the early years where so many “criminals” ended up being shipped from England to Southern plantations as source of cheap labor, often serving several years as “apprentices.”  Eventually plantation owners found that they could save even more money by using black slaves, since they could keep them for life.

The point raised here is that the growth and development of capitalism itself required cheap labor wherever it could be found, starting with children who were seized (often called “napping”) for shipment to American colonies to be servants.  This practice became so common that the term “kidnapping” was often used.  Here we find the beginnings of a “prison industrial complex” by providing cheap labor to help the newly emerging businesses. A “trade” in prisoners thus began, starting in the early 17th century when thousands of prisoners (slaves) were transported from England to America.  It is true that American history is a history of immigration, but then, as Christensen notes, American colonial history is mostly a “story of the immigration of prisoners.”  Indeed, these prisoners “manned the ships”; they Awere carried to the colonies to work in the mines and fields” and were “brought in chains from African and Europe to the Caribbean and the Americas as slaves.”

The early fortunes in America were not normally made through “hard work” by risk taking entrepreneurs as American folklore would have us believe.  Rather, most of these fortunes were the result of the “seizure, imprisonment, shipment, and sale of human beings to America,” without which “immense fortunes would not have been made from tobacco, sugar, and rum.”  In fact, some of the earliest trading companies from Great Britain had their own private “lockups” or prisons which they used to temporarily house those on their way to the colonies.  Operating these “private prisons,” says Christensen, became quite profitable, a “lucrative clandestine trade in many ports” which also led to even more profit-making businesses, such as those manufacturing leg irons and similar hardware.

This trafficking in prisoners was for many years one of the most common forms of sentencing, especially after England made so many crimes punishable by death, which resulted in the increasing use of pardons.  These pardons were not done for purely humanitarian reasons; as such a system provided a steady stream of cheap labor for colonial merchants.  In fact, Parliament passed an act to assist these new businesses in the colonies, an act that allowed the courts to sentence offenders to transportation to the colonies instead of to the gallows, resulting in literally thousands of offenders shipped to America to be “servants” for a period of usually seven years.  Christianson gives one example, a man named Jonathan Forward, a merchant in London who had contacts in Maryland.  He was able to obtain a nice little “subsidy” from the crown: three pounds for each Newgate prisoner and five pounds for every “convict taken from the provinces.  In exchange, he agreed to ship any and all criminals sentenced to transportation, and to pay all costs, including gaol [an old English term for jail] fees, for their conveyance.”  Forward was already experienced in the slave trade, so this was nothing new to him.  Forward began collaborating with Jonathan Wild who provided many “felons” for transportation to the colonies.  On one occasion, in August of 1718, a total of 106 prisoners were put on board the ship Eagle, a ship well-known for transporting slaves.  Forward maintained a virtual monopoly on this business for more than 20 years. 

Transporting criminals remained a lucrative business throughout the 18th century.  This business was described as one carried out by the “most corruptible class” of traders.  In an ironic twist to this story, Forward's business was eventually taken over in 1771 by a young Glasgow trader by the name of Patrick Colquhoun, who eventually became a famous police reformer.

In time, transportation became the most common form of punishment in Great Britain. Between 1720 and 1765 Parliament passed 16 laws making requiring transportation the required form of punishment for a wide variety of mostly minor crimes, such as poaching and perjury; at one point around 16,000 debtors were released from prisons and sent to the new colony of Georgia, a project led by one James Edward Oglethorpe, who was the deputy governor of the Royal African Company and a leading figure in early American history.  It has been estimated that more that 20,000 prisoners came from England to Virginia and Maryland, plus at least another 10,000 from Ireland.  Additional estimates, from various sources, puts the total number of prisoners transported to America at more than 50,000, representing at least one quarter of all British emigrants to America during the 18th century.  Some say this estimate is too low.  And it does not even include those sent from France, Spain and Denmark!  It can even be said that transportation marked the end of “public punishments” (e.g., public whippings, stocks and pillory), the kind of punishments more appropriate for a colonial society based upon agriculture and the notion of crime as “sin.”

One more point needs to be made and that is the fact that even back in colonial days there was a dual system of justice, one for the well-to-do and one for the poor.  Public punishments and eventually transportation was reserved for the poor, while fines were leveled against the well-to-do.  Not much has changed in 400 years.

The growing capitalist system certainly benefited from a steady supply of prisoners!  So much for traditional notions of “hard work” and “individual initiative” as reasons for amassing huge fortunes!  It should be noted that these "convict vessels" often on their return voyage brought with them colonial exports like tobacco, wheat and pig iron.  Profits often exceeded 30 percent!  One convict trader wrote to his partner that their business “if properly managed will in a few years make us very genteel fortunes.”

Like African slaves, prisoners were often viewed as “human cargoes” and mere “commodities.”  Advertisements were posted throughout the colonies noting the planned arrival of a particular “convict vessel,” in a manner almost identical to the arrival of African slaves.  For African-Americans the American prison system became little more than a substitute for chattel slavery.  

If you think that such “trafficking” is a thing of the past, relegated to the dust bin of history, think again.  Transporting prisoners is not only common today, but it is a big business.  A recent survey by the Associated Press shows that 11 states “export” an estimated 8,700 prisoners to other states because of space shortages. This figure does not include the District of Columbia, which has no prisons, that has about 5,800 inmates spread out all over the country in both federal and private prisons.  It is ostensibly saving the states money, which they would have had to spend on either new prisons or expansions of existing prisons.  Examples include the state of Connecticut sending prisoners 500 miles to Jarratt, Virginia, which has a population of 589, typical of majority of prisons that have opened in the past decade or so.  It is located in the southern part of the state, about 70 miles south of Richmond, just off Interstate 95. The name of the prison is Greensville Correctional Center, opened in 1990, which now has a population of 3,007 according to the Virginia Department of Corrections web site, which is: (

Other examples include Hawaii, which sends 1,439 prisoners to prisons run by Corrections Corporation of America in Oklahoma and Arizona; Vermont is sending about 700 prisoners to Kentucky and Tennessee; Alaska sends more than 700 to Texas and within the next three years may send as many as 1,000; ironically, Arizona, which houses some prisoners from Hawaii (noted above) nevertheless sends more than 600 to Texas!

However, they may be cutting off their nose to spite their faces, since transporting prisoners to far away places makes it almost impossible for prisoners to maintain contacts with family members.  It has long been recognized that a key to parole success is maintaining close ties with family members while incarcerated.  A case in point is the family of Barbara Fair (a social worker in New Haven, Connecticut) who has three sons sent to prison on drug charges, who says the pain of this separation “is felt most keenly by Keijam Tucker, her son in Virginia, because he rarely sees his three young daughters.  Even though most of the Connecticut inmates find the visitation and smoking policies more lenient in Jarratt than at Connecticut prisons, Tucker, 28, has formally requested a transfer to his home state — to no avail. Mrs. Fair says ‘He'd take the deplorable conditions here in Connecticut just to see his daughters. They're growing up without him’.”

The corrections commissioner of Vermont, Steven Gold, said the state would like to get back the prisoners they are sending to Virginia (at the prison in Jarratt) back home soon.  Their plan is to create more space in their prisons by placing more offenders in community-based programs. Gold said that: “We recognize that when offenders are separated from their families and support systems, it has an impact on their current lives and their eventual re-entry.” Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the world, holds 55,000 inmates in 60 facilities in 20 states; CCA has more than 6,000 out-of-state prisoners in their various facilities around the country.

Transporting prisoners to far away places has another negative effect. In the state of New York, most prisons in recent years have been built in the update regions. Hundreds of families of inmates have to make the long bus ride in order to visit their relatives.  Ironically, this fact has created yet another business, begun in 1973 by an ex-convict, who founded Operation Prison Gap, which operates a bus service for these families.  They now have 35 buses and vans traveling on weekends and holidays.

Although slavery has been around for hundreds of years, the physical transporting of them is of relatively recent origin.  Prisoners, who are in many ways like slaves, have been subjected to various forms of transportation, especially when it’s good for business.  Like every other “product” in a capitalist system, prisoners often need to be transported.  It is one of the many unanticipated consequences of the massive incarceration of mostly poor, minority, urban residents.  Apparently it matters little, for the ubiquitous “bottom line” of capitalist profits needs to continue.



© 2004 by Randall G. Shelden. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.