[Above: Laborers at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, in 1911.]


Assistant professor of economics Belinda Archibong researches development economics, political economy, economic history, and environmental economics. In her recent paper on prison labor, Archibong and her co-author, Nonso Obikili, a director at the Turgot Centre for Economics and Policy Research in Abuja, Nigeria, examine prisons’ costs and the effects of incarceration on society. 

Prison reform has been a topic of debate among activists for decades. Archibong and Obikili looked at 65 years of digitized archival records on prisons in British colonial Nigeria: from 1920 to 1959, when the incarcerated were exploited as a source of free labor, and from the postcolonial era (1971-1995), when they were not. Their study concludes that using prisoners as a source of free labor erodes the public’s trust in legal institutions, like law enforcement.

With ongoing national protests for police reform, Archibong will use the findings from her paper to help students better understand the current moment and its intersecting issues. “Given the protests and discussions about issues of equity and justice, especially around policing and the legitimacy of legal institutions in the U.S. and around the world, it’s important that we discuss these topics and understand what’s at stake as well,” said Archibong. 

In this Break This Down interview, the economics professor discusses her research results and how she will incorporate the topic into her fall courses this year.

What was some of the most notable information you discovered in the data, which spans 65 years?

Three facts in particular were very surprising to us: 

First, that prisoners and their unpaid prison labor were actually a very important part of state public finance in colonial Nigeria from 1914 to 1960. Labor shortages were quite common in Britain’s African colonies, and to minimize the costs of administration, colonial governments used coerced unpaid labor. British colonial officials stated quite explicitly the need for unpaid African prison labor to work on public works projects, like roads and railroads, that were essential for getting revenue to the British colonial government. This was partly reflected in relatively high incarceration rates in colonial Nigeria; with around 400 prisoners per 100,000 population in 1940, colonial Nigeria would have ranked number 15 of 222 countries in the world today — the U.S. at number 1 has around 700 prisoners per 100,000 population. Nigeria today incarcerates a much lower share of its population, ranking 211 of 222 in incarceration rates.  
And second, that this led to perverse incentives for incarceration, where positive economic shocks or periods of positive agricultural productivity, which should be good for the well-being of local African farmers, actually increased their rate of incarceration over the colonial period. More Africans were being imprisoned during “good” economic years over the colonial period, since colonial authorities were using convicts as a reserve of labor. And the majority of crimes people would be incarcerated for were what were called “offences against revenue laws, municipal, road and other laws relating to social economy of the colony” or things like tax default or vagrancy, pass laws, and labor registration laws. In contrast, this effect notably reverses in the postcolonial era, after 1960, when prison labor was not a main feature of state public finance, and “bad” economic years increased the prison population, as we saw more people in prison for economic crimes, like property theft. 
Finally, these coercive colonial prison labor systems had long-term effects on trust in legal institutions in Nigeria today. Residents in areas that were more exposed to these economically motivated, prison labor colonial prison systems report much lower trust in legal institutions, like police, today. There’s no effect on other types of trust, like trust in their neighbors or relatives, just trust in legal institutions, like police in particular. 

When it comes to prison labor, what are some things the public may not know about how it serves economies and other industries?

Today, there are more people incarcerated than at any other point in human history, with the current prison population at around 11 million globally. Many governments have been advocating for an increase in the use of prison labor, as a way to address the large prison population and rising incarceration rates around the world. The U.S. and China are two countries that are known for their use of prison labor, with prisoners working on everything from manufacturing and public works projects to fighting fires and making hand sanitizer to combat the current pandemic. In the U.S. alone, which has the highest incarceration rate globally, prison labor contributes to a lower bound estimate of $2 billion a year in industrial output. It’s a significant, largely understudied aspect of the economy, and given our work on the potential perverse incentives and long-term negative effects on trust in legal institutions that can arise from governments pushing prison labor, it’s very worrying to see many governments seeking to use prison labor. 

Did the data, which examines British colonial Nigeria, create new understandings around the prison industrial complex system in the U.S.?

To some extent, yes. There are similarities between the British colonial Nigeria prison labor system and the origins of the U.S prison system from slavery and the coercion of Black people’s labor and how that then morphed into the prison industrial complex as we see it today. There are many differences, but it was striking to us how similar the legal institutions were around the use of convict labor in 19th-century U.S. and 20th-century colonial Nigeria. Many of the same laws mentioned previously, like pass laws and vagrancy or labor registration laws under the so-called Black Codes that targeted African Americans for incarceration and penal labor on public works projects like the railroad in the U.S., were also used in British colonial Nigeria to target Africans for incarceration and penal labor on public works projects like the railroad. It’s also informative to think about the current discussions and protests about prisons and policing and how a history of using institutions of justice like prisons to serve economic and other extrajudicial interests could have lasting harmful effects on citizens’ trust in their legal institutions. 

Will you incorporate this topic into any of your fall semester classes?

Definitely. We’ll discuss these topics in both my Introduction to Economic Reasoning and my Logic and Limits of Economic Justice courses through reading some of the research and other media relating to these topics and engaging in thoughtful debates. Especially now, given the protests and discussions about issues of equity, justice, policing, and the legitimacy of legal institutions in the U.S. and around the world, it’s important that we discuss these topics and understand what’s at stake. 

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