convict labor, work of prison inmates. Until the 19th cent., labor was introduced in prisons chiefly as punishment. Such work is now considered a necessary part of the rehabilitation of the criminal; it is also used to keep discipline and reduce the costs of prison maintenance. The main types of work in prison communities are maintenance activities, outdoor public works (farming, road building, reforestation), and industrial labor. Considered a source of cheap labor, convicts were formerly put to work on contract, lease, or piecework bases for private industries. Convict labor played an important role in the settlement of Australia, and in the development of some of the Middle and Southern colonies established by Britain in America. In recent decades these methods have been condemned, and prison industries are devoted to the production of goods used in state institutions. Because of competition with nonprison labor, interstate commerce in the products of convict labor has been restricted in the United States since 1934. Wages are paid in many state and federal prisons in the United States and in many European countries. The notorious chain gangs of some Southern states, in which convicts engaged in physical labor outside the prison were shackled together, no longer exist, but Alabama briefly and unsuccessfully attempted to revive the chain gang in the mid-1990s. Work-release programs have been introduced with some success in France, Norway, Sweden, and the United States, whereby convicts are allowed to work outside prisons in private industry during the latter part of their prison terms; for this work the convict receives the same wages as a regular civilian worker. Although U.S. law bans the importation of goods produced by convict labor, a sizable percentage of China's exports is alleged to come from labor camps.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.