A man leans against a half-carved stone monument taller than he is. Various other monuments surround him.
Prison Labor in Michigan
Steve Ostrander, Exhibit Developer
Michigan in the Museum
The selection of Jackson for the site of the Michigan State Prison in 1837 was a decision based on economics. Several Jackson businessmen had lobbied the State Legislature for the prison because they were seeking a source of cheap labor for their factories. The Jackson Wagon Company soon built a factory on the prison grounds, making it easy for guards to escort inmates to and from work. Inmates were paid pennies per day and worked under a quota system. Inmates who didn’t make their quotas lost privileges or were severely punished. Early factories at Jackson produced auto parts, harness and tack, binder twine, tombstones, cigars, clay tile, furniture, overalls, shoes, farm equipment, carpet, barrels, locomotive boilers, brushes, brooms, and of course, license plates.
By 1922 the State of Michigan began to operate its own factories and shops due to objections by unions that inmates were taking jobs away and working for slave wages. The intent was to make the prison self-supporting. Jackson Prison even had its own concrete block and brick factory to produce material for prison expansion projects, ironically forcing inmates to manufacture the materials used to confine them.
Prison farms produced food to feed hungry inmates. This included canned fruits and vegetables, wine and cider, with the surplus being sold to the public up until the late 1970s. The Great Depression years of the 1930s were a decade of change for Michigan prisons. The advent of Civil Service rules ended the patronage system for wardens. The Hawes-Cooper Act prohibited the sale of prison-made products in interstate commerce, and the Michigan Legislature adopted a bill limiting the sale of prison products to state institutions and tax-supported agencies only. By the 1980s, Michigan State Industries was only allowed to sell its products to nonprofit organizations as well as federal, state and local governments. MSI produced textiles, road signs, office furniture, file cabinets, cleaning supplies, work clothing and uniforms.
States of Incarceration
Learn more about the history of incarceration in the traveling exhibit, States of Incarceration
Many fascinating stories like this one were featured in our special exhibit, States of Incarceration, from September 2018 - May 2019. This national traveling exhibit explores the history and impact of mass incarceration nationwide. During its run at the Michigan History Museum, it included stories throughout to reflect specifically on Michigan’s place in the past and future of mass incarceration.
Albert M. Ewert was a chaplain with the Michigan Department of Corrections in the 1930s, a time when prison reform was a big issue across the United States. Reverend Ewert was at the forefront of this reform in Michigan… Read More
During World War II, over 6,000 prisoners were housed in Prisoner of War (POW) camps in Michigan. Approximately 1,000 POWs were held in the Upper Peninsula, while 5,000 were housed in the Lower Peninsula… Read More
Reimund Holzhey robbed stagecoach and train passengers in northern Michigan and Wisconsin during the late 1880s. His downfall began on August 26, 1889, when he stopped a stagecoach between Gogebic Station and Lake Gogebic. In the process of robbing it, he shot Adolph G. Fleischbein… Read More
In the early 1880s Jackson Wagon Company received a telegram from the world-famous circus master P.T. Barnum. He inquired whether the Jackson company could build a wagon that was sturdy enough to hold 13,000 pounds. It seemed that one of Barnum’s star attractions, Jumbo… Read More
Ewert was part of a reform movement within the penal system across the country. This movement placed an emphasis on education and rehabilitation long before prisoner re-entry programs were officially developed. Along with his suggested reforms of the parole system, Reverend Ewert developed an arts… Read More
During a promotional tour of the Upper Peninsula during the summer of 1953, Detroit Red Wings general manager Jack Adams and team captain Ted Lindsay visited the Marquette Branch Prison. After a tour of the correctional facility, warden Emery Jacques invited the Red Wings back… Read More
Today we are relatively accustomed to the idea of old, closed-down prisons being destinations for curious tourists; think Alcatraz Island and the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. But the idea of prisons as tourist attractions has been around since the 19th century - though not… Read More
"States of Incarceration" is a national traveling exhibit that looks at the history and future of mass incarceration in the United States. In It was created by university students and formerly incarcerated individuals from 30 communities across the country. Investigating why the U.S. incarcerates more… Read More