This is the first in a series of articles examining work performed by inmates at correctional facilities in Knox and Waldo counties. Our research into the history of prison labor for Part 1 took us to Thomaston Historical Society and Maine State Library where we reviewed old warden reports and newspaper clippings related to Maine State Prison in Thomaston, which was operational for 178 years before the new facility opened in Warren in 2002. Upcoming articles in the series will look at the current prison industries program, re-entry centers and work-release programs.

When the Maine State Prison was first opened in Thomaston in 1824, it was a series of 56 9- to 11-foot holes dug in the ground, each with a grate-covered, 2-foot-square aperture on top where a ladder could be inserted. Each hole contained only a hammock, a block to sit on, and a copy of The New Testament. Temple University criminology professor Negley Teeters wrote in 1947, “It was without a doubt the most unique institution of its kind in the history of American penology.” Dr. Daniel Rose, the prison's first warden and designer said, “State prisons should be so constructed that even their aspect might be terrific and appear like what they should be, dark and comfortless abodes of guilt and wretchedness.”

Rose was also alleged to have said, “There his vices and crimes shall become personified, and appear to his frightened imagination as the co-tenants of his dark and dismal cell. They will surround him as so many hideous spectres, and overwhelm him with horror and remorse.”

But Rose wasted no time in putting the prisoners to work quarrying limestone. “Perhaps Warden Rose deplored seeing so much manpower going to waste as the prisoners sentenced to solitary confinement languished in their lonely hammocks,” Teeters wrote.  The supposed reformative nature of hard labor, like that of solitary confinement, was its original justification, but the profits that could be derived from such labor were the driving force behind its implementation.

The first record of income from labor by prisoners is dated Jan. 3, 1825, and shows: “at quarrying Lime Rock – sales $1,431.45; profits, same; at hammering stone, sales $113.55; profits, same; shoe-making (raw material) $20.34; sales, $202.29, profits, $181.95; all other employments, $28.88; total profits $1,755.83.”

Forced labor quickly took over as the punishment of choice. In February 1827, the Maine Legislature enacted that “all punishments by imprisonment in the State Prison shall be confinement to hard labor and not solitary confinement,” reserving the use of solitary confinement for discipline.

Improvements in conditions at the prison were motivated by their effects on productivity. Early warden reports noted that by providing books, the convicts became more industrious and obedient, and that feeding prisoners well also increased their productivity. A report of the Boston Prison Discipline Society 1827 advocated limiting solitary confinement because long periods of solitary confinement in proportion to hard labor makes the labor “wholly unproductive.”

The drive for profits, rather than the reformative nature of the tasks, also governed the choice of occupations for inmates. In 1835, the prison commissioners wrote, “It is the general if not universal opinion of the wardens of the prisons in New England that hammering stone is among the employments most suitable for convicts,” because it was the most likely occupation to bring a profit. The 1840 Maine State Prison Inspectors Report stated the prison's production of lime casks was over-saturating the market. "Lime casks are frequently hauled to market and sold for one half of what they will cost the state to manufacture them," wrote Warden Benjamin Carr. But he noted demand for prison-made boots and shoes continued to increase, as did demand for prison-made stage carriages, gigs, horse and ox wagons and sleighs.

Over time, some thought was put into benefits that could be offered to the prisoners, and the vocational value of work was recognized. In the 1857 inspector's report, suggestions were made that prisoners should be offered two days' good time per month for good behavior, as was the practice in Tennessee, and that some of the proceeds from prisoners' labor should be sent to their families and saved for their release, as New York prisons were doing. The 1867 report stated, "Those who remain here as long a term as required to learn a trade outside the prison become skillful workmen, and nearly all acquire some knowledge of a trade that may be of use to them after they are discharged from prison."

Though prison industries often brought a dividend to the state, if proceeds did not cover the prison's operating expenses, wardens would explain why in their yearly reports before asking the Legislature for funds. Sometimes it was because there were not enough men incarcerated to produce enough to make a profit. For example, in 1865 the prison had only 65 inmates, though the previous year began with 128.

Sometimes it was because of competition. “It is no small task to provide for labor and support of 120 or 125 men, when surrounded by competitors well posted in their vocations and interested to head us off,” Warden Robert Tinker wrote in 1862.

"In addition to the disadvantage of having but little capital to work with, and the low condition of labor, the prison had no regular customers or established trade; and the reputation of its manufacturers had been run down to a very low ebb."

In 1865, the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery everywhere else, justified the labor that had been in use in American prisons: “Neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In 1866, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prisoners have no constitutional rights, and in 1871 a Virginia court referred to prisoners as “slaves of the state.” These precedents remained for nearly 100 years.

In a 2009 treatise titled "The Rights of Prisoners,"  Pace Law University professor Michael Mushlin states: "Courts have held that prisoners have no independent constitutional right to be paid wages for their services, but the jurisdiction may create a statutory right of compensation. Thus although the Thirteenth Amendment may not require payment of wages for prison labor, it does not preclude a state from choosing to do so… Thus the general rule is that absent a particular statute that provides a right to a specific wage, prisoners have no constitutional right to be paid for their labor."

Mushlin goes on to explain that the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, establishing that employees must be paid a minimum wage, generally does not apply to prison labor because inmates do not meet the definition of employee covered in the Act. The determination is based on whether the work is performed inside or outside the prison, whether the labor is voluntary or involuntary, and whether the employer is a private or public body. Most courts uphold that prison inmates who work in prison settings for prison authorities are not employees.

Competition and Compensation

Eventually it was outside labor that pushed for limits on the use of prison labor. A labor group devised the Hawes-Cooper bill, passed by Congress in 1929 and repealed in 1978, which provided that no articles made in a state prison may be sent out of state to enter other state markets in competition with products of free labor. An older state law required that every article sent out of the prison be labeled, “Made in Maine State Prison.”

“The Hawes-Cooper law seems about the worst thing that could happen to us,” Prison Commissioner A. W. Gregory told the Bangor Daily Commercial in 1936. “If we could get some sort of wood work the situation wouldn't be so bad. Maine is a small state. It would be hard to keep busy on just what the state would absorb.”

Prison labor had been contracted out to private companies over the years, and in 1927, Maine State Prison contracted its inmates' labor to East Coast Manufacturing Co. for the production of work shirts, “over the vigorous protestations of manufacturers and the state Chamber of Commerce,” according to the 1929 Handbook of American Prisons and Reformatories. The company shut down in 1935.

Offsetting the cost to taxpayers of incarcerating inmates was often an argument used in favor of prison labor. The Bangor Daily Commercial reported in 1936 that taxpayers had to bear the burden of the shirt factory's closing. It closed when it had made only $8,000 of the $20,000, budgeted for maintenance, that it was projected to earn in 1935, so the state had to appropriate the $12,000 in lost revenue.

As late as 1971, the Maine Sunday Telegram argued, “Critics charge that prison work replaces food or furniture that might be bought on the open market, but it would cost Maine taxpayers hundreds of thousands of extra dollars each year if prisoners did not work. Second, the prisoners would be inclined to run amuck without jobs to do.”

But support for paying prisoners for their labor was also gaining ground. The 1929 Handbook of American Prisons and Reformatories, whose authors inspected Maine State Prison in 1927, criticized the prison for not providing compensation to inmate workers. “Maine is one of the few states that do not permit the payment of any wage to the prisoners,” the handbook reads. “The desirability of a reasonable wage is now recognized, its value having been demonstrated by those prisons whose industries are profitable. In contract shops especially payment on a piece-work or bonus basis has been found necessary to keep up production.”

The handbook authors also noted that while most work in the prison had vocational value, the contract shirt shop did not, “the industry being a woman's occupation outside.” They criticized the prison for a doing little to stimulate an interest in either academic or vocational education.

A 1927 article by Charles Hyneman in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology states that for three months the Maine State Prison did try out a wage plan that paid a maximum net wage of 50 cents per day. It quotes a member of the Board of Prison Commissioners saying, "The three months during which we tried our plan convinced us that fundamentally the thing was sound, from both an economic and a moral standpoint. We increased man-power and we developed 'morale' even beyond our own calculations," but the policy was not adopted.

In a 1930 Maine's Own Magazine article, reporter H.D. Oliphant argues: “Forced labor without remuneration is slavery and degradation. Moreover, many criminals have dependents to whom wages above the cost of the convict's keep might be paid. Those amateur criminologists who for economy's sake would not pay prisoners a wage forget two things: that the quality of labor and the amount of profit are both reduced when the laborer receives no compensation and that dependents of prisoners in many cases have to be supported by some other state department. The state loses in any case.”


The industries program continued to expand. In 1878, a local newspaper reported the prison was getting orders for harnesses faster than they could be filled, even with 38 inmates working in the shop. Sleighs and carriages were produced well into the 1900s. In the 1930s jewelry boxes, small crafts and novelties were introduced. The prison also was making 500 wheelbarrows a year at the time.

By 1953 there was a tin shop, where pails, gutters, sinks and funnels were made; a blacksmith shop that made grates, hinges, motor parts and files; a wood shop that produced office furniture for the state, among other things; a paint and upholstery shop; a sanding room; a wooden sign shop; a harness shop; a tailor shop; a plate and metal sign shop; a print shop where all forms for the institution, board of parole and other state departments were printed at “enormous savings to the state;” a cobbler shop; machine shop; commissary; pipe shop; electric shop; and, of course, a rock pile for hammering, according to the report “Maine State Prison 1824-1953.”

In addition, the report noted that profits from the prison farm, established in 1930 at the current Boldoc Correctional Facility, “represent a considerable saving to prison and state.” There inmates tended to 3,400 chickens, 150 head of cattle and 250 pigs, and produced 25,000 cans of vegetables for use at Maine State Prison and 12,000 for other institutions. In 1956 the farm brought in $118,000, more than covering its $100,000 in expenses.

In the report, then Warden Allan Robbins wrote of the prison farm as a sort of paradise within the prison where real rehabilitation could occur. "The primary purpose or objective of a prison is to turn back into society the men who are ready, willing and able to assume their place as useful, law abiding citizens. Thus has developed the penological maxim that men are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. The Prison Farm concept is the ideal method of rehabilitation."

Prison Reform Movement

In the 1960s the legal precedents for depriving prisoners of their rights were overturned. In the 1963 case Jones v. Cunningham, the Supreme Court ruled that state inmates had the right to file orders of habeas corpus challenging the legality of their sentencing and the conditions of their imprisonment. The following year, in Cooper v. Pate, the court ruled unanimously that prisoners had the right to protection under the Civil Rights Act. Inmates filed lawsuit after lawsuit in the 1960s and 1970s over the conditions of their imprisonment.

Those lawsuits improved conditions for prisoners, but stopped short at allowing prison laborers to unionize. In 1977 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners' Labor Union that prisoners to not have the right to join unions.

Between 1971 and 1972, Maine inmates filed six suits against the state ranging from a challenge to censorship to objection over use of prison strip cells, according to an article by Lloyd Ferriss in Maine Sunday Telegram. Four Maine State Prison inmates filed a suit against then-Warden Robbins in 1971 pleading the right to communicate to news media. Another suit against the state filed by a reporter seeking to interview inmates was successful in overturning a regulation that had barred prisoner access to the press.

“In response to the suits and in part to its own desire for change the state's Department of Mental Health and Corrections has instituted several reforms that include better food, some higher education for guards and a prisoner advisory board to air inmate complaints,” Ferriss wrote.

In October 1971, prisoners threatened to strike in solidarity with inmate kitchen workers who refused to work. Several small fires were set in corridors by inmates. The action led to a lockdown and administration response that cost the state $22,520, according to an article in "BN" (Maine State Library abbreviation on the newspaper clipping). A list of 27 demands had been submitted earlier by an inmate-elected advisory council. After the conflict, many of the demands were met but then-acting Warden Robert Kennedy told the paper concessions were granted “in spite of the disturbance, not because of it.”

Some of the requests that were granted included hot water in cells, permission for inmates to grow their hair long, allowing home-cooked meals to be brought to inmates by families for their birthdays and Easter, and relaxed visiting procedures.

Professor Howard B. Gill, a clinical criminologist and consultant to the Maine Department of Mental Health and Corrections, told Maine Sunday Telegram in 1972 that reforms had been token and the prison remained a “massive medieval monolithic monkey cage monstrosity… about 150 years out of date.”

Ferriss wrote that prisoners complained about lack of vocational programming and censorship of mail, and indicated that most still were not getting paid for their work, though by that point a craft program had been established where some inmates could design novelty items, employ other inmates to help produce them and earn income through their sales. “Opportunities to learn such skilled trades are available to a very few inmates, the rest are absorbed in compulsory and unpaid industrial work,” he wrote. “The most educational of industrial jobs are also the most restricted. The majority of inmates find themselves sanding wood, working in the kitchen or doing one of several furniture refinishing tasks.”

In another 1972 article, Ferriss described the work of 24 inmates making 500,000 license plates a year at production cost of 50 cents a plate, for which "the inmates received not a single cent."

An organization called SCAR, Statewide Correctional Alliance for Reform, developed a list of demands in 1973 including minimum wage for prison work, the right to unionize, an end to censorship, expanded rights of political activity, improved visiting conditions, establishment of conjugal visits, and investigations into alleged physical and mental brutality, according to a Courier Gazette article that year. Then-Warden Robert Kennedy told the newspaper bills for a minimum wage were before the Legislature.

A deputy told the newspaper at the time that for prison industry jobs, funds for wages could come out of the industries' profits, but wages for inmate service work at the prison would have to be appropriated by the state.

We, with the help of research librarians at Maine State Library, were not able to find any current Maine statutes related to wages for inmates working in prisons. Prison Industries manager Ken Lindsey said that prisoners were receiving pay by the 1970s for work in industries.

Inmates at Maine State Prison were still frustrated in 1978 by the lack of rehabilitative opportunities that would prepare them to reenter society, and by the new criminal code which abolished parole, according to an article by Maine Sunday Telegram photojournalist Jim Daniels.

There was a backlash to the reform movement in the 1980s when “tough on crime” attitudes led to a prison population explosion across the country. Maine State Prison was dealing with heightened tensions resulting from overcrowding. There were 481 prisoners in September 1985, though at the time the Thomaston facility was built to handle only 400, and inmates were being doubled up in single-occupancy 5-by-7-foot cells.

High incarceration rates continue to this day. People are locked up at Maine State Prison for crimes of addiction and poverty as well as more serious crimes, at the cost of nearly $45,000 per prisoner per year, according to an 2011 OPEGA study.

A new prison with a capacity of 916 was opened in Warren in 2002. Currently there are 870 to 910 inmates at Maine State Prison at any given time, according to Warden Rodney Bouffard, who is transitioning to his new position as associate commissioner of the Corrections Department. While most inmates work — unless they have physical, medical and/or mental health restrictions — still only about a third of the positions are paid.

In Part 2 of this series, "Climbing the ladder at Maine State Prison," we will look at what work is like for today's inmates at Maine State Prison.