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Prison Media Work: From Manual Labor To The Work Of Being Tracked

Anne Kaun, Fredrik Stiernstedt

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Incarcerated individuals have long contributed to crucial societal infrastructures. From being leased work force building the railway in the United States to constructing canal systems in Sweden, prisoners’ labor has been widespread as an important part of value production. Part of the labor conducted by incarcerated people is related to the production, repair, and maintenance of media devices and media infrastructures constituting what we call prison media work. In this article, we trace the changing logics of prison media work historically since the inception of the modern prison at the turn of the 20th century. Based on archival material, interviews, and field observations, we outline a shift from physical manual labor toward the work of being tracked that is constitutive of surveillance capitalism in- and outside of the prison. We argue that prison media work holds an ambiguous position combining elements of exploitation and rehabilitation, but most importantly it is a dystopian magnifying glass of media work under surveillance capitalism.