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Book Review: Labor and Punishment

Book review of Erin Hatton's edited collection Labor and Punishment: Work In and Out of Prison (2021)

Published onAug 04, 2022
Book Review: Labor and Punishment

Labor and Punishment: Work In and Out of Prison, ed. Erin Hatton (2021). Oakland, CA: The University of California Press.

By Guillermo Stefano Rosa Gómez

Labor and Punishment: Work In and Out of Prison contributes to the anthropological study of work in Western societies by focusing on what can be, at first sight, an unusual locale for it: prisons. The analysis in this volume takes a deep look into the entanglements between mass incarceration and economic insecurity, while considering the structural and historical conditions that produce these linkages. It also stresses the importance of noting the subjective experiences of those who engage in carceral labor. In this regard, the importance of interrogating the meaning, value, and quality of work – and not just its material conditions – is a significant contribution that this book makes.

The study of prisons and their connection with work and broader society problematizes essential concepts of modernity, such as citizenship and morality. In historical terms, there is a long past, rife with theological overtones, as regards the relationship between work and punishment. As the research of Graeber (2018) shows, this history begins with Greek and Christian myths, such as Prometheus and the Garden of Eden; via these classical narratives, “the fact that humans have to work is seen as their punishment for having defied a divine Creator” (idem, p. 221). Labor and Punishment deepens the debate – through its probing of this pressing social problematic over multiple research sites. In doing so, the text reveals a curious social tension regarding work in the United States, but also in Western culture more generally: work, on the one hand, is held in high esteem, for it constitutes human beings as successful and moral individuals. On the other hand, work is also a fundamental part of punishment and incarceration. As Hatton puts it, “given the centrality of work to American culture and inequality, it is perhaps not surprising that it is also a centerpiece of American punishment” (p. 18).

Hatton’s volume analyzes many of the intersections between work and punishment, but it does so from a lone starting point: “American society is profoundly structured by both mass incarceration and socioeconomic insecurity” (p. 11). One potent argument that the book defends is the need to consider prisons as part of society – as obvious as this seems – and not as a parallel reality. In Chapter 2, Amanda Bell Hughett shows the political efforts taken in North Carolina during the 1970s to reinforce the material and symbolic separation between prisons and the “free world.” Some of these efforts started from the understanding that prisons should finance themselves “at no additional cost to taxpayers” (p. 55), thus creating a division between prison budgets and those of other public institutions. One of the signals of this division was the total repression of trade unions inside prisons, which – to the annoyance of state authorities – were bringing attention to laborer-prisoners’ demands for fair wages and workplace rights. 

The research of Noah Zatz, featured in Chapter 4, posits that prisons are profoundly rooted in the labor market, despite the existence of a “sociolegal project of institutionalizing a separation between criminal justice and the economy” (p. 140). Even with that separation, the concepts of “payment, wages, and work” (p. 161) appear in legal discussions regarding prisons and in the prisoners’ rights movements. The approaches of Zatz and colleagues highlight the cultural nature of dichotomies such as “free labor” versus “prison labor” and how the resulting confusion leads to precarity for those who work behind bars, together with the rejection of basic employment rights for them.

Another example of how prisons can explain our cultural understandings of work and punishment is the ways in which the logic of incarceration is reproduced in other institutional contexts, such as at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as Jacqueline Stevens demonstrates in Chapter 3. In Chapter 5, Caroline M. Parker shows that certain therapeutic communities for recovering addicts in Puerto Rico are based on the idea of a bond between work and recovery; work is also credited with helping these members recover their sense of purpose, via the association that labor is “redemptive and remunerative” (p. 191). The tension created by experiences that reinforce cultural values around the meaning of labor and, at the same time, offer precarious – in some cases non-remunerated – work is a theme that recurs throughout the volume. 

Labor and Punishment also makes sense of how mass incarceration and its lived experiences produce a way of thinking about work, which furthers the anthropological understanding of the social value of persons. This phenomenon even impacts the lives of those who leave prison, especially in the intense efforts that formerly incarcerated persons must undertake to reinsert themselves into the U.S. labor market. In Chapter 6, citing her research with formerly incarcerated men in Syracuse, New York, Gretchen Purser defines three main challenges that her interviewees face when looking for a job: “status degradation ceremonies, the perpetual presumption of criminality, and the extra-economic pressure of parole supervision” (p. 217). In Chapter 7, Anne Bonds shows how gender is another fundamental category to understand not just prisoners’ carceral experiences but also the precariousness that women face after prison; her research in Milwaukee, Wisconsin demonstrates how detrimentally incarceration impacts women’s social networks and their relationships with family members. Female ex-prisoners are seen socially as transgressors of “both the law and norms of proper femininity” (p. 240), creating an overlap of negative moral judgments, especially for those who are mothers. This twofold setback directly impacts released women’s subsequent levels of remuneration as well as the quality of jobs that they are able to attain. 

Throughout Labor and Punishment, precarity punctuates inmates’ experiences of carceral labor and the structures of inequality that govern it. The chapters in the text amount to a critical account of the poor conditions and exploitability of work when it is articulated with imprisonment. It is also important to call attention to how the subjective value of labor can be important, even in a scenario of neoliberal mass incarceration. This is undoubtedly one of the more precarious working situations out there – and yet, those implicated in it endure (Bachelard, 1988), conceiving of ways to make sense of their own lives through work. The volume goes further – in revealing how incarcerated workers demand “meaningful jobs” (p. 67) – meaning that we as social scientists must take seriously the desire of prisoners to seek dignity in their work experiences. 

This is one of the ways that Labor and Punishment can help us think about work in contemporary society, from cultural, historical, and politico-economic perspectives. It will interest readers not only examining prison labor, but also those who consider work to be an essential part of the human condition. The volume also sheds light on the values created and reshaped by experiences of work around the globe. Indeed, Labor and Punishment offers to the reader a platform to question whether work must always be synonymous with punishment, and what we, as a society, can do to ensure that it is instead an experience defined by meaning and dignity.


Bachelard, Gaston (1988) A dialética da duração. São Paulo: Ática.

Garfinkel, Harold (1956) “Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies.” American Journal of Sociology 61(5): 420-424.

Graeber, David (2018) Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. New York: Simon & Schuster. 

Hatton, Erin, ed. (2021) Labor and Punishment: Work In and Out of Prison. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Author Bio

Guillermo Stefano Rosa Gómez is a Ph.D. candidate in social anthropology at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, Brazil. His dissertation is about the work experiences of rideshare drivers in Porto Alegre (Brazil) and Atlanta (Georgia, USA).

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