Penal labour or penal servitude is a form of unfree labour. The term may refer to several related situations: labour as a form of punishment, the prison system used as a means to secure labour, and labour as a form of occupation of convicts. These situations can be applied to those imprisoned for political, religious, war, or other reasons as well as to criminal convicts. Large-scale implementations of penal labour include labour camps, prison farms, and penal colonies.
Punitive labour, also known as convict, prison, or hard labour, is a form of unfree labour used in both past and present as an additional form of punishment beyond imprisonment alone. Punitive labour occupies a spectrum between two types: productive labour, such as industrial work; and intrinsically pointless tasks used as primitive occupational therapy and/or physical torment. Sometimes authorities turn prison labour into an industry, as on a prison farm. In such cases, the pursuit of income from their productive labour may even overtake the preoccupation with punishment and/or reeducation as such of the prisoners, who are then at risk of being exploited as slave-like cheap labour (profit may be minor after expenses, e.g. on security). On the other hand, in Victorian prisons, inmates commonly were made to work the treadmill: in some cases, this was productive labour to grind grain; in others, it served no purpose. Similar punishments included the crank machine (a device where prisoner had to turn a crank that merely pushed paddles through sand in a drum), and shot drill, carrying cannonballs around for no purpose. Semi-punitive labour also included oakum-picking: teasing apart old tarry rope to make caulking material for sailing vessels.
In the British Empire in the 19th century, hard labour became a standard feature of penal servitude as penal transportation was phased out. Although it was prescribed for severe crimes (e.g. rape, attempted murder, wounding with intent, per the Offences against the Person Act 1861) it was also widely applied in cases of minor crime such as petty theft and vagrancy, as well as victimless behaviour deemed harmful to the fabric of society. Notable recipients of forced labour under British law include Oscar Wilde (after his conviction for gross indecency) and John William Gott (a terminally ill trouser salesman convicted of blasphemy).
The British penal colonies in Australia between 1788 and 1868 provide a major historical example of convict labour, as described above: during that period, Australia received thousands of transported convict labourers, many of whom had received harsh sentences for minor misdemeanours in Britain or Ireland.
The Penal Servitude Act of 1853 (16 & 17 Vict. c.99) substituted penal servitude for transportation, except in cases where a person could be sentenced to transportation for life or for a term not less than fourteen years. Section 2 of the 1857 Penal Servitude Act (20 & 21 Vict. c.3) abolished the sentence of transportation in all cases and provided that in all cases a person who would otherwise have been liable to transportation would be liable to penal servitude instead. Sentences of penal servitude were served in convict prisons and were controlled by the Home Office and the Prison Commissioners. After sentencing, convicts would be classified according to the seriousness of the offence of which they were convicted and their criminal record. First time offenders would be classified in the Star class; persons not suitable for the Star class, but without serious convictions would be classified in the intermediate class; and habitual offenders would be classified in the Recidivist class. Care was taken to ensure that convicts in one class did not mix with convicts in another.
As late as 1885, 75% of all prison inmates were involved in some sort of productive endeavour, mostly in private contract and leasing systems. By 1935 the portion of prisoners working had fallen to 44%, and almost 90% of those worked in state-run programmes rather than for private contractors.
In the People's Republic of China, laojiao (Re-education through labour) and laogai (Reform through labour) have been used as a way to punish political prisoners. They were intended not only for criminals, but also for those deemed to be counter-revolutionary (political and/or religious prisoners).
Most Japanese prisoners are required to engage in prison labour, often in manufacturing parts which are then sold cheaply to private Japanese companies. This practice has raised charges of unfair competition since the prisoners' wages are far below market rate.
The 13th Amendment of the American Constitution in 1865 explicitly allows penal labour as it states that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a 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." However the "convict lease" system became popular in the South in the late 19th century. Since the impoverished state governments could not afford penitentiaries, they leased out prisoners to work at private firms. Douglas A. Blackmon argues that it was Southern policy to intimidate blacks; tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested and leased to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries and farm plantations. The state governments maximized profits by putting the responsibility on the lessee to provide food, clothing, shelter, and medical care for the prisoners, which resulted in extremely poor conditions, numerous deaths, and perhaps the most inhumane system of labour in the United States. Reformers abolished convict lease in the Progressive Era, stopping the system in Florida in 1919. The last state to abolish the practice was Alabama in 1927.
Another historically significant example of forced labour was that of political prisoners and other persecuted people in labour camps, especially in totalitarian regimes since the 20th century where millions of convicts were exploited and often killed by hard labour and bad living conditions. For much of the history of the Soviet Union and other Communist states, political opponents of these governments were often sentenced to forced labour camps. The Soviet Gulag camps were a continuation of the punitive labour system of Imperial Russia known as katorga, but on a larger scale.
Between 1930 and 1960, the Soviet regime created many Lager labour camps in Siberia and Central Asia. There were at least 476 separate camp complexes, each one comprising hundreds, even thousands of individual camps. It is estimated that there may have been 5-7 million people in these camps at any one time. In later years the camps also held victims of Stalin’s purges as well as World War II prisoners. It is possible that approximately 10% of prisoners died each year. Out of the 91,000 Germans captured alive after the Battle of Stalingrad, only 6,000 survived the Gulag and returned home. Many of these prisoners, however, had died of illness contracted during the siege of Stalingrad and in the forced march into captivity.
Probably the worst of the camp complexes were the three built north of the Arctic circle at Kolyma, Norilsk and Vorkuta. Prisoners in Soviet labour camps were worked to death with a mix of extreme production quotas, brutality, hunger and the harsh elements. In all, more than 18 million people passed through the Gulag, with further millions being deported and exiled to remote areas of the Soviet Union. The fatality rate was as high as 80% during the first months in many camps. Immediately after the start of the German invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II, the NKVD massacred about 100,000 prisoners who awaited deportation either to NKVD prisons in Moscow or to the Gulag. Michael McFaul, in his New York Times article of 11 June 2003, entitled 'Books of the Times; Camps of Terror, Often Overlooked' http://www.anneappelbaum/com/gulag/mcfaul2003_06_11.html, has this to say about the state of contemporary dialogue on Soviet slavery:
It should now be known to all serious scholars that the camps began under Lenin and not Stalin. It should be recognized by all that people were sent to the camps not because of what they did, but because of who they were. Some may be surprised to learn about the economic function that the camps were designed to perform. Under Stalin, the camps were simply a crueler but equally inefficient way to exploit labor in the cause of building socialism than the one practiced outside the camps in the Soviet Union. Yet, even this economic role of the camps has been exposed before.
What is remarkable is that the facts about this monstrous system so well documented in Applebaum's book are still so poorly known and even, by some, contested. For decades, academic historians have gravitated away from event-focused history and toward social history. Yet, the social history of the gulag somehow has escaped notice. Compared with the volumes and volumes written about the Holocaust, the literature on the gulag is thin.
In a number of penal systems, the inmates have the possibility of a job. This may serve several purposes. Some say it gives an inmate a meaningful occupation and a possibility of earning some money. It may also play an important role in resocialisation: inmates may acquire skills that would help them to find a job after release. It may also have an important penological function: reducing the cruel monotony of prison life for the inmate, keeping inmates busy on productive activities, rather than, for example, potentially violent or antisocial activities, and helping to increase inmate fitness, and thus decrease health problems, rather than letting inmates succumb to a sedentary lifestyle.
The classic occupation in 20th-century British prisons was sewing mailbags. This has diversified into areas such as engineering, furniture making, desktop publishing, repairing wheelchairs and producing traffic signs, but such opportunities are not widely available, and many prisoners who work perform routine prison maintenance tasks (such as in the prison kitchen) or obsolete unskilled assembly work (such as in the prison laundry) that is argued to be no preparation for work after release. Classic 20th-century American prisoner work involved making license plates; the task is still being performed by inmates in certain areas.
A significant amount of controversy has arisen with regards to the use of prison labour if the prison in question is privatized, a phenomenon present in a few areas of the United States, where goods produced through penal labour are regulated through the Ashurst-Sumners Act which criminalizes the interstate transport of such goods.