Carrie Chennault (Anthropology and Geography) and Joshua Sbicca (Sociology) have published “Prison agriculture in the United States: racial capitalism and the disciplinary matrix of exploitation and rehabilitation” in Agriculture and Human Values. This is the first article to report on research undertaken in The Prison Agriculture Lab. The Lab has also created a satellite image gallery containing images of all the prisons in its nationwide data set that have agriculture.
The United States prison system, the largest in the world, operates through both exploitative and rehabilitative modes of discipline. To gain political and public support for the extensive resources expended housing, feeding, and controlling its incarcerated population, the carceral state strategically emphasizes a mix of each mode. Agriculture in prisons is particularly illustrative. With roots in racial capitalism and the carceral state’s criminalization of poverty, plantation convict leasing system, work reform efforts, and punitive and welfarist carceral logics, prison agriculture embodies explicit forms of exploitation and claims of rehabilitation. Accordingly, this article contextualizes and explains results from a nationwide study of state prisons within our framework of the disciplinary matrix. At least 662 adult state prisons have agricultural activities, including an array of animal, food, and plant production. We find that the drivers of these activities are financial, idleness reduction, reparative, and training. Our disciplinary matrix framework departs from conventional assignments of a particular activity to one disciplinary mode or the other and recognizes that any activity may be driven by different prison needs or philosophies. We investigate how different combinations of agricultural activities and drivers rely on discourses of deservingness to naturalize and reproduce structures of racialized, classed, and gendered control inside and outside prison, as well as the legitimacy of the prison system itself.