On the Market: Michael Gibson-Light

Michael Gibson-Light

University of Arizona, School of Sociology
PhD Candidate


Michael Gibson-Light

Dissertation Title: Punishment and Capital: Inmate Labor in the Contemporary American Prison

Committee: Jeffrey Sallaz (chair), Phillip Goodman, Ron Breiger, Jennifer Carlson, and Kathleen Schwartzman

Research Description: Michael is a scholar of punishment, work, culture, and economic practice specializing in the study of prison labor and ethnographic methods. His dissertation research entails an 18 month ethnography within one U.S. men’s state prison complex and over 80 in-depth interviews with prisoners and prison staff. This work investigates the structure and practice of inmate labor, revealing a stratified prison employment system in which inmates compete for few “good prison jobs.” Certain prisoner groups, such as racial and ethnic minorities, foreign nationals, and those lacking valued forms of cultural and social capital or marketable work skills, face significant additional hurdles to securing meaningful work, impacting their resources within prison along with their resumes upon release. Outside inequalities are reinforced through how inmates are assigned to work sites, how individual jobs are organized and managed, and the practices and dispositions of inmate workers—that is, through the interplay of the structure of the prison employment system and the strategic action of actors within it. Social barriers are here reproduced not between the poor and rich or the incarcerated and free, but within the narrower range of social class occupied by the inmate population. Hence, while incarceration “marks” all offenders, the skills and qualifications with which they enter prison have powerful effects as well. Early findings regarding informal inmate practices—including the adoption of ramen noodles as the de facto informal currency within the prison black market—have drawn considerable public attention to Michael’s work.

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