Two and a half million men and women are under lock and key in the US prison system, including nearly 5 percent of the adult African American male population. The prison security workforce employs more people than Ford, General Motors, and Walmart combined. This issue of Labor offers a systematic historical and economic overview of the state that structures the working lives of millions of Americans: the correctional state. From post-slavery "convict lease" to the privatization of prison management by giant corporations, prison labour has a long history. To fill in the gaps of that history, contributors to this issue focus on the changing work experience and behaviour of prisoners, examining the labour history of the their keepers as well as the relationship between political and economic developments inside and outside prison walls. One contributor studies both prisoner and prison guard attempts toward self-organization and unionism, including a series of labour strikes among prisoners in the 1960s and 1970s, and surveys the strength of the police and prison guard organization, which has grown even as unionism has waned in the workforce as a whole.
Another contributor concentrates on the political ambivalence of police and prison guard unions, as well as on their dependence on "law and order" backlash to prison reform and other welfare demands.