On October 14, 2022, Belinda Archibong, assistant professor of economics at Barnard, delivered the keynote lecture at the African Economic History Network conference in Las Palmas, Spain. Her lecture, “Interrogating Inequality,” focused on her new research on prison labor in colonial Africa that shows how institutions of justice have been used to serve economic and other extrajudicial interests, with lasting detrimental effects.

Professor Archibong analyzed data from British colonial Nigeria to examine the consequences of incarceration that is designed to exploit inmates as a source of labor. She and her team created new estimates of the value of prison labor and the impact of labor demand shocks on incarceration by digitizing 65 years’ worth of archival documents since 1920. The results showed that prison labor contributed significantly to colonial public works spending, proving its economic value to the colonial regime. In the post-colonial era, when prison labor ceased to be a prominent aspect of the public budget, the positive economic effect was reversed. Places with strong historical exposure to colonial incarceration resulted in a marked decline in current trust in legal institutions like the police. The work provides historical context that sheds light onto current events, including the motivation behind ongoing national rallies for police reform.