Do any states in the US allow prison sentences at hard labor?

My neighborhood was recently hit by a serial arsonist. The person was caught and confessed, and there is plenty of evidence for a conviction. On our local blog, one of the neighbors said that in her home country, such crimes are punished by prison sentences at hard labor.

That got me thinking and I decided to ask if anyone here knows: is anyone still sentenced to hard labor in the US? I grew up near what was then my state’s only penitentiary. There was a dairy farm and also a very big garden. Inmates tended these areas and the prison’s grounds.

It occurs to me that prison sentences accompanied by hard labor might be more effective deterrents than prison sentences that guarantee “3 hots and a cot” and provide clothes and medical care. The serial arsonist in my neighborhood was homeless. He now has a home in the penal system. I personally would like to know that he will spend the rest of his life shoveling snow in a chain gang in the winter and picking up garbage in a chain gang in the summer. I checked on Wikipedia and in the past there were also “punitive labor” sentences involving such things as stirring a bucket of sand, or carrying cannonballs from one place to another.

So – does anyone know what happened to this kind of prison sentence in the US?

I don’t know the answer to your question, I just think the juxtaposition of this post with the “#1 Rule to Build Muscle” ad is hilarious.

Joe Arpaio uses chain gangs, but as far as I can tell they’re volunteer.

This article is ten years old, so I’m sure the information is out of date by now, but as of 1999, 37 states allowed prison labor:

I’m thinking more of the punitive “hard labor” activities that are not voluntary and not a privilege.

Now I’m also wondering if I should contact my representative in the State House of Representatives. Re-instituting genuine hard labor in my state’s prisons might please a lot of taxpayers.

I have to admit I’m being selfish. I’ve been very upset about the arsons in my neighborhood, and despite the fact that the person is in custody, I still can’t get a good night’s sleep. Maybe I could if I had a reasonable expectation that the arsonist will really be punished, rather than simply given a home for however many years.

From the Missouri Department of Corrections:


And this

I don’t know if priosoners work on road crews and break rocks anymore, but they’re expected to do something.

We don’t send people to prison to punish them. We send them to prison for the same reason (and in similar numbers) as Stalin sent them to the goulags. To put them somewhere that isn’t here. That place isn’t so bad (and neither were the goulags… they had women there!), and it’s just the way we like it.

Thanks! That’s encouraging. I’d sure put sandbagging on a list of punitive labor jobs.

All states allow prisoners to work at labor. For the most part they work directly for the state, in such a way as to reduce the cost of their incarceration (such as: prison maintenence or laundry) The 37 states in the article listed above allow prisoners to work in a way that produces goods that compete in the open market which is generally illegal, but is legal when a program is specifically certified in compliance with certain Federal laws. (this is why they are and must be paid at least minimum wage - most prisoners who work, are not entitled to pay at all and when they do receive it, it is around $1/hr)

You can’t categorically say why we send people to prison. There are retributive (punitive) motivations as well as utilitarian (isolation from society/reformation) ones, which freely intermix at the present time, and have for the entire history of the American penal system.

The earliest American prisons were intended to promote honest penitence, not mere separation from society.

Several states still impose sentence of hard labor. Louisiana seems the busiest, judging by the appellate opinions I see. Here’s an appellate opinion from 2007:

and a chart of sex offenses with hard labor as a possible sentence:

[Defendant] was convicted in the Decatur Municipal Court of driving under the influence (“DUI”), a violation of § 16-1, Code of Decatur. The municipal court sentenced him to serve forty days at hard labor and imposed a $ 600 fine.

City of Decatur v. Theron Glen Lindsey, 989 So. 2d 1157; 2007 Ala. Crim. App. LEXIS 108 (Ala. Ct. Cr. App. 2008).

Barnett v. State, 2000 Ark. App. LEXIS 760 (Ark. Ct. App. (2000).

And here’s a good one:

I’ve got the entire case in the spoiler box here for anyone who cares. The last bit tells the story, so I’ll leave it outside the spoiler box.

[spoiler] As the Trial Judge in this case, I had the opportunity not only to listen to all the testimony and hear all the facts in this case, but I also had the opportunity to observe the [*538] defendant, both during the times that the jury was in the courtroom as well as when the jury was not present.

I saw the defendant attempt to stare down the Assistant District Attorney, the family members of the deceased, as well as several of the witnesses in this case. Indeed, I observed a contest of “wills” between this defendant and a certain witness in which the witness maintained eye contact with the [***2] defendant until she was nearly out of the back door.

In addition, I was informed on several occasions during the course of this trial that Mr. Johnson made comments to the family of the deceased and to the Assistant District Attorney. Although I did not personally hear most of those comments, Mr. Johnson acknowledged that he did make a comment but assured me that it was innocent, polite and friendly. However, given the one obscene comment that I was able to hear, I do not believe that all the other comments were friendly and wholesome.

I do acknowledge that, with the exception of these comments, the defendant’s demeanor in court has, for the most part, been quiet and respectful to the Bench.

However, his otherwise polite and soft-spoken demeanor belies the cruel, cold, heartless murderer that is presently awaiting sentence.

As the jury has found, this defendant, while waiting to commit a robbery of a grocery store, noticed the deceased closing up his butcher shop and decided to rob him instead. The defendant went up to his victim, draped his arm around Mr. Arce’s shoulders in a sign of camaraderie, and instead of a friendly nudge to the jaw, shot Tony Arce through the head [***3] at point blank range.

And, as if that was insufficient, as Tony Arce attempted to run for his life, the defendant and his cohorts fired many more shots at him and, when Mr. Arce finally stumbled out of the line of fire, Mr. Johnson opines that he hopes the " ‘mother fucker’ is dead so he can’t identify us".

The People presented four witnesses who clearly and unequivocally placed the defendant at the scene, one of whom was in such frighteningly close proximity that she felt the powder residue of the shot. They also offered the defendant’s own statement wherein he acknowledges his presence at the incident but minimizes his involvement.

However, despite this overwhelming evidence of his guilt as [*539] well as his signed statement, Mr. Johnson took the witness stand and denied his involvement, denied his presence at the scene, and even denied having ever been in this area of Queens County. And then, in what amounts to the ultimate temerity, he tells the jury that at the time of the incident he was at home with his mother who, he further informs the jury, has just recently died.

He further testifies that he did not make the statement attributed to him and that his signature [***4] appears thereon only because the police tricked him into signing several blank pieces of paper at various locations on the paper for the stated purpose of obtaining a handwriting exemplar.

Although I could continue to address the circumstances surrounding the trial, I believe that I have said enough about it.

I do wish to briefly acknowledge the letters that I have received from friends and family of Tony Arce, as well as the moving statement made by his wife in court today.

While the value of such statements is always important to help define the life that was lost, I found the full measure of the man within the testimony of Officer Jordan who knew him since she was seven years old as the helpful and friendly neighborhood butcher.

The value of Tony Arce’s life was clearly reflected in her tears as she described witnessing an esteemed neighborhood fixture being destroyed.

It is in view of these circumstances that I must look not once, not twice, but many times at what constitutes a proper sentence [**684] for this cold-blooded murderer who so arrogantly destroyed so much.

After substantial consideration I find that a term of imprisonment at hard labor is the only appropriate [***5] sentence to be meted out.

HN1Go to this Headnote in the case.Under New York State law, the decision as to whether or not a defendant should be required to perform hard labor while incarcerated is left to administrative prison officials. This was not always the case and compelling reasons exist as to why the decision concerning hard labor should be left to the trial court.

At common law, the sentence of hard labor was quite rare. Put simply, the ordinary common-law punishment for almost all felonies was death by hanging; the exceptions being petty [*540] larceny, rape and mayhem. 1 Thus, death was the award for almost any felony, barring a specific statute to the contrary. With the advent of modern criminal and penal codes, the death sentence has been reserved for only the most serious of crimes; indeed there is no death sentence presently available in this State. Accordingly, imprisonment is the preferred form of punishment. 2

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                              1 1 Bishop, Criminal Law, Book VIII, ch LX, § 935 (7th ed).2 Id., at §§ 933-935.
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[***6] HN2Go to this Headnote in the case.Federal authority has long established that there is no constitutional defect in requiring a prisoner to perform hard labor while incarcerated. ( United States v Reynolds, 235 US 133, 149; Butler v Perry, 240 US 328.) One of the more modern expressions of the Federal judiciary’s position on hard labor is provided by Draper v Rhay (315 F2d 193, 197 [9th Cir]) which held, in part, the following:

"There is no federally protected right of a state prisoner not to work while imprisoned after conviction, even though that conviction is being appealed.

“Prison rules may require [a prisoner] to work but this is not the sort of involuntary servitude which violates Thirteenth Amendment rights.”

Similarly, Wilson v Kelley (294 F Supp 1005, 1012) held that no duty is owed to a prisoner other than to exercise ordinary care for his or her protection. The court went on to explain that the requirement that a prisoner perform hard labor in no way violates any of a prisoner’s rights, nor does it violate any duty owed to a prisoner. This line of cases thus clearly establishes that a State may require its prisoners to perform hard labor without constitutional defect.

Many [***7] States recognized the use of hard labor as part of a prisoner’s sentence in their Constitutions or early statutes. 3 The State of New York has, throughout this century, required that convicted prisoners perform hard labor. The New York Penal Law of 1909 in section 2183 specifically stated: “Where a person is convicted of a crime, for which the punishment inflicted is imprisonment for a term exceeding one year, or is sentenced to imprisonment for such a term, the imprisonment must be inflicted by confinement at hard labor in a state [*541] prison”. 4 This section, which essentially mandated a sentence of hard labor for all felonies, remained substantially unchanged until 1971 when the New York criminal laws were amended. Section 2183 was replaced by HN3Go to this Headnote in the case.section 70.20 which states as follows: “(1) Indeterminate sentence. Except as provided in subdivision four of this section, when an indeterminate sentence of imprisonment is imposed, the court shall commit the defendant to the custody of the state department of correction for the term of his sentence [**685] and until released in accordance with the law”. 5 In so rewriting this section, the legislative provision that prisoners [***8] be confined at hard labor was removed. New York Correction Law § 500-d and 171 now govern the labor of prisoners while incarcerated. 6

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                              3 19 Merrill, American and English Encyclopedia of Law, at 89 (1892); see, Ala Const, art I, § 33; Miss Const of 1869, art I, § 19; Stimson’s Stat Law of Cal, § 141, New York-Birdseye’s Revised Stat, at 2319; NC Const, art II, §§ 1, 2; Stimson’s Stat Law of Cal, § 141; Mass Stat of 1827, ch 118; Mich Stat of 1842, at 130.4 Gilbert’s, Criminal Law and Procedure, art 196, § 2183 (1918).5 Penal Law § 70.20.6 HN4Go to this Headnote in the case. Correction Law §§ 500-d, 171. Section 500-d states, in part, as follows: “Such keeper shall cause each prisoner committed to his jail for imprisonment under sentence, to be constantly employed at hard labor when practicable, during every day, except Sunday … Such keeper may, with the consent of the board of supervisors of the county, or the county judge, from time to time, cause such of the convicts under his charge as are capable of hard labor, to be employed outside of the jail … in building and repairing the highways … or in preparing the materials for such highways … and in cutting wood and performing other work which is commonly carried out at a prison camp … and the courts of this state are hereby authorized to sentence convicts committed to detention in the county jails to such hard labor as may be provided for them by the boards of supervisors. This section as amended shall not affect a county wholly included within a city.”

HN5Go to this Headnote in the case. Section 171 of the Correction Law provides, in part, as follows: “The commissioner of correctional services and the superintendents and officials of all penitentiaries in the state may cause inmates in the state correctional facilities and such penitentiaries who are physically capable thereof to be employed for not to exceed eight hours of each day other than Sundays and public holidays.”

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[***9] It is interesting to note that under New York law only the Commissioner of the Department of Correctional Services and the Warden of a particular correctional institution are specifically empowered to require hard labor of inmates confined to State correctional facilities, while section 500-d of the Correction Law gives the Trial Judge such authority where inmates are to be incarcerated in a county jail. While section 171 specifically empowers correctional institution administrators to compel hard labor, nothing in this section prohibits a Trial Judge from sentencing a defendant to hard labor in a State facility.

For reasons of equal protection under the law, these sections [*542] must be read so as to allow all trial courts the right to impose hard labor through their sentences. HN6Go to this Headnote in the case.The Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution, as interpreted by New York courts, forbids the State from treating similarly situated persons differently or enacting laws which make distinctions between people without a rational basis. ( Matter of Abrams v Bronstein, 33 NY2d 488; People v Utica Daw’s Drug Co., 16 AD2d 12 [4th Dept]). If only certain trial courts are forbidden [***10] from imposing a sentence of hard labor upon inmates in State correctional facilities, an equal protection problem arises. Specifically, section 500-d of the Correction Law, which allows a Judge to sentence hard labor to the county prisons, is not mirrored in section 70.20 of the Penal Law or section 171 of the Correction Law. This law thus facially makes a distinction between those defendants sentenced to county correction facilities, and those who are sentenced to State facilities. This distinction is not rational. Indeed, it would strain reasoning to accept that a Judge can sentence a defendant to hard labor in a local jail but not in a State prison.

There is no reason, logical or otherwise, why these sections of New York’s criminal laws should be read in such a way as to prohibit a Trial Judge from imposing hard labor. The legislative history of the amendments which changed the New York Criminal Code, states: “[T]he purpose of this bill is to accommodate the Code of Criminal Procedure to the revised Penal Law, the vast majority of amendments proposed in this bill are only of a formal nature”. 7

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                              7 Mem of Temp Commn on Rev of Penal Law and Criminal Code, 1967 NY Legis Ann, at 18-19.
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[***11] In addition, nothing in the legislative history of this bill indicates a specific intent to deprive certain trial courts of the power to sentence a defendant to hard labor.

In order to determine the legislative intent in revising the old Criminal Codes, this court must employ several generally accepted [**686] rules of statutory interpretation. Section 381 of 73 American Jurisprudence 2d, Statutes explains that HN7Go to this Headnote in the case.a statute containing a provision which repeals a previous legislative act, “operates only as a declaration of what would be the legal effect of the act without the provision, and does not permit to be engrafted on this express declaration of legislative intent an implication of more extensive repeal”. American Jurisprudence [*543] further explains that repealed statutes may be used as an aid in interpreting existing statutes.

As this court has previously explained, when the Legislature updated New York’s Criminal Code and removed section 2183 of the old Penal Law (which mandated hard labor in sentences), the power to sentence a defendant to hard labor was preserved in section 500-d of the Correction Law on the County level. When this law is read in conjunction [***12] with the requirements of equal protection and the rules of statutory interpretation, the unavoidable conclusion is that this court retains its authority to sentence a defendant to hard labor.

From a logical standpoint there are several other valid reasons why all Trial Judges should be so empowered. Administrative prison officials are relatively removed from the actual facts and circumstances surrounding a particular case. They have no way of knowing what information was not put into their records or what public effect or reaction a particular defendant’s actions resulted in. Indeed, of all the public officials involved in the criminal justice system, the Trial Judge is in the best position to know all of the facts and circumstances surrounding a particular case. The trial court has before it the complete record, including that which does not reach prison officials, such as the demeanor of the witnesses and most importantly, the defendant. Furthermore, the Trial Judge is usually aware of that degree of notoriety and public concern a particular case has generated. Although such circumstances do not serve as a deciding factor, they do enter into the mix of what constitutes all [***13] the circumstances of a particular case. Finally, the Trial Judge conducts a lengthy and probing examination of each defendant in each case. The nature of this examination allows the Trial Judge to learn more about a defendant than an administrator could in the State correctional facilities.

For all of these reasons, New York law can be interpreted in such a way as to permit the trial court, through its sentence, to impose the specific enhanced punishment of hard labor.

Finally, it must be pointed out that permitting trial courts to make such judgments would in no way compromise the rights of any particular defendant. Indeed, by allowing the trial court to make hard labor determinations, the enhanced sentence could be reserved for the most egregious of offenders. This is preferable to only permitting prison officials to make [*544] relatively removed determinations on this issue. Such a system would be both more just and more fair to all of the parties involved.

If a defendant becomes ill, or must be moved for administrative or safety reasons, prison officials should, of course, have the final say.


People v. Johnson, 153 Misc. 2d 537; 590 N.Y.S.2d 682; 1992 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 503 (1992).

I believe military courts (above the level of Summary Court Martial?) can and do impose sentences of hard labor.

I know of no legal reason why Ohio courts could not require that a felon serve his or her prison term at hard labor, but neither do I know of any courts that have ordered it. What a felon does in prison is usually left to officials there. There are certainly people who richly deserve a prison term at hard labor, and I agree with the OP that it might have a greater deterrent effect for someone who might otherwise anticipate relatively “easy time.”

To be realistic, hard labor is too expensive for most prison systems.

For example, suggestions of ‘chain gangs’. There are expenses: states would have to buy secure buses to transport inmates to and from the site of the work, would have to hire drivers for those buses, they would have to have extra guards to watch them (in addition to the guards still back at the prison), the state would have to buy a bunch of chains, also buy sledgehammers or pickaxes for the inmates (another reason for needing extra guards!), and they would probably be legally required to provide the standard safety gear.

All this to break rocks? Mechanical rock crushing machines can do that cheaper, faster, and deliver it by the dump truck load to the road site. The same is true for most of the other suggested items. Shoveling snow? we have snowplows and snowblowers that are much more efficient. Picking up garbage? Mechanical pickers/vacuums, automated bucket loaders, & compression trucks do this better & cheaper.

All of these suggestions are basically unskilled labor, and nearly all such jobs can be done more efficiently by machines now.

And the suggested punitive tasks – stirring sand, hauling cannonballs back & forth – are absolutely zero efficiency: they don’t accomplish anything worthwhile. (And might run afoul of that Constitutional “cruel and unusual punishment” thing.)

The cheapest way of keeping prisoners is pretty much just what we have: warehouse them in tight quarters in penitentiaries, surrounded by high walls and guards. (Whether investing in basic literacy teaching, education, & job training would reduce the number of inmates that return & save money in the long run is for a different thread.)

Currently, in nearly all states, the prison system (and government in general) are facing budget cuts due to the financial situation. Spending more money to provide ‘hard labor’ is just not on the radar of the prison managers.

You could do it yourself. :smiley:

But you’d need the County to do some organizing first:

If they become disabled:

I believe your whole premise is wrong. Most criminals don’t think about the fact they might not succeed in your crime. I don’t think there’s a single study where harsh punishment proves to be effective in reducing crime.

For those who prison might be an effective deterrent, I have a feeling that one day is just as good as 10 years. Heck, for me, knowing that the judge could simply threaten to give me a really good noogie is enough for me to stay on the straight and narrow.

The idea of hard labor sounds similar to tough love reform schools. It is suppose to build character, but ends up simply becoming abusive. I can see the appeal of it, but it simply isn’t a deterrent.

How is a sentence of hard labor actually enforced? I would think that there would always be a percentage of people who would just refuse to do any work. What happens then,? Are they beaten? Are they withheld food? For them, the sentence is essentially “daily beatings” or “starvation until dead”.

Prisoners cannot be beaten as punishment. But privileges can be withheld, and parole denied, and solitary confinement imposed, and in extreme cases additional charges brought which, if convicted, will lead to an extension of the original sentence.

Thanks, Gfactor, for the research.