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What is Hard Labor?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Hard labor is a form of work which is imposed as part of a prison sentence. The work is compulsory and people are not provided with compensation. The work itself is a form of a punishment. It is considered a form of unfree labor and is practiced in numerous countries around the world. In the eyes of the law, hard labor is not considered to be a form of slavery because it takes place within the context of a penal sentence.

It is important to distinguish hard labor from a job in prison. Many prisons allow their prisoners to take jobs and in fact encourage this practice. Prison workers are paid for their work, although they are paid much less than workers on the outside, and their participation is voluntary. While some human rights advocates have argued that prison jobs do raise some ethical issues, they are not used as a form of punishment, but rather as rehabilitation for prisoners. While the employment system in prisons may need some reform, it is not equivalent to hard labor.

Historically, some nations used hard labor as a way of accessing cheap labor for projects, especially public works projects. Instead of being transported to a distant location or held in prison, nations would work their prisoners on tasks like building and maintaining roads, creating structures, and so forth. This was also used as a threat to encourage people to comply with the law.

Hard labor was also used as a form of political punishment. Dissidents in nations like Russia and China were sentenced to labor camps in which they were often worked to death on projects meant to benefit the State. The backbreaking work was intended to break the spirits of prisoners and it was also used to threaten their families. If families spoke out about the imprisonment of people for their political values, the government might transfer their loved ones to especially grueling and harsh labor camps.

There are clear ethical issues involved with hard labor. Laborers do not get to choose the type of labor they engage in, let alone set their own hours. The unpaid and compulsory nature of the work raises many concerns about people who are worried about human rights and penal reform issues.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1003560 — On Jul 24, 2020

Hard labor isn’t the oxymoron, the portable a/c unit in the labor field is.

By anon990136 — On Apr 08, 2015

re post 1: At a Florida prison, an inmate was recently punished by being forced to wheel a large wheelbarrow filled with broken concrete. Perhaps he was doing some useful 'work', but it sure sounds like hard labor.

By stringbeanz — On Jul 19, 2011

@YellowMood - Yes, you are right. I saw that program not too long ago. The participants in the chain gang are there voluntarily though.

Well, kind of at least.

Some of the prisoners go there because they earn credit toward a high school diploma. Others go there because they are able to be outside. Some others go there to get out of lock down for disciplinary infractions.

It gets really hot out there in the summertime, but I suppose it beats being in solitary confinement...

By YellowMood — On Jul 18, 2011

Wasn't there a prison camp in Arizona that still had the inmates on a chain gang? I'm pretty sure that I saw a TV special on it of couple years ago.

I remember something about the warden forcing the prisoners to wear pink?

By indigomoth — On Jul 17, 2011

Hard labor makes me think of the Shawshank Redemption.

It showed that the warden of the prison was taking the money used from his prisoners' labor and using it to line his own pockets.

I'm sure that kind of thing went on all the time back in the day, and it is one of the reasons I'm glad there isn't a chance for them to do it now.

People shouldn't have that kind of power over other people.

There should always be checks and balances in place to make sure that power isn't going to corrupt the ones in charge.

By umbra21 — On Jul 17, 2011

There are some really good work programs going on in the United States at the moment. I saw one on a documentary the other day. Some might call it a hard labor punishment but since it is voluntary, it technically isn't.

It was a work program that allowed prisoners to learn how to break wild horses for human use. The men had to not only stay on the horses that definitely wanted to get them off, after that they had to make a connection with the animal.

It could be painful and difficult, as horses are big strong animals and wild horses can be very dangerous. But men who did it had a reason to be proud, and learned useful skills.

I thought it was a wonderful idea.

By JessicaLynn — On Jul 16, 2011

@ceilingcat - You're right. I know a lot of people that would gladly accept a job building a bridge or something like that rather than be unemployed.

I just realized the last time I heard anything about hard labor it was on a science fiction show! Has anyone else noticed that a lot of the aliens on Star Trek seem to be big fans of enforcing hard labor on their citizens? In fact I think one of the last episodes of any Star Trek show I watched featured a rescue from a hard labor camp!

By ceilingcat — On Jul 15, 2011

I'm glad hard labor isn't used in the US anymore. For one thing, it seems unconstitutional. But thinking practically, there aren't enough jobs to go around in this country as it is. Imagine the uproar if new national projects like bridges and road were built using forced labor instead of paying ordinary citizens to do it!

I don't think that would fly in this day and age, not at all!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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