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A prison farm or work camp is a large correctional facility where penal labor convicts are put to economical use in a 'farm' (in the wide sense of a productive unit), usually for manual labour, largely in open air, such as in agriculture, logging, quarrying, etc. Its historical equivalent on a very large scale was called a penal colony.1
The agricultural goods produced by prison farms are generally used primarily to feed the prisoners themselves and other wards of the state (residents of orphanages, asylums, etc.), and secondarily, to be sold for whatever profit the state may be able to obtain.2
In addition to being forced to labor directly for the government on a prison farm or in a penal colony, inmates may be forced to do farm work for private enterprises by being farmed out through the practice of convict leasing to work on private agricultural lands or related industries (fishing, lumbering, etc.). The party purchasing their labor from the government generally does so at a steep discount from the cost of free labor.1
Depending on the prevailing doctrine on judicial punishment and penal harm, psychological and/or physical cruelty may be a conscious intent of prison farm labor, and not just an inevitable but unintended collateral effect.
Convicts may also be leased or enslaved for non-agricultural work, either directly to state entities, or to private industry. For example, prisoners may make license plates under contract to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, or may perform data processing for outside firms. However, these practices tend to be referred to as prison industries rather than prison farming.
Britain had a long history of penal servitude even prior to the passage of the Penal Servitude Act of 1853, and routinely used convict labor to settle its conquests, either through penal colonies or by selling convicts to settlers to serve as slaves for a term of years as indentured servants.
This type of penal institution has mainly been implanted in rural regions of vast countries, often with a tradition of physical punishment, such as the Deep South of the United States and Canada.1 For instance, the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica reported on the North Carolina penal system (which at the time still openly separated inmates by race):
"The state prison is at Raleigh, although most of the convicts are distributed upon farms owned and operated by the state. The lease system does not prevail, but the farming out of convict labor is permitted by the constitution; such labor is used chiefly for the building of railways, the convicts so employed being at all times cared for and guarded by state officials. A reformatory for white youth between the ages of seven and sixteen, under the name of the Stonewall Jackson Manual Training and Industrial School, was opened at Concord in 1909, and in March 1909 the Foulk Reformatory and Manual Training School for negro youth was provided for. Charitable and penal institutions are under the supervision of a Board of Public Charities, appointed by the governor for a period of six years, the terms of the different members expiring in different years. Private institutions for the care of the insane, idiots, feeble-minded and inebriates may be established, but must be licensed and regulated by the state board and become legally a part of the system of public charities."
Though the prison farms of the American South were notorious for their cruelty and corruption, northern states also have a tradition of prison farming. In 21st-century Illinois, several prisons continue to run farms to produce food for wards of the state, including the prisoners themselves. The 1911 Britannica also reported that the state of Rhode Island had a farm of 667 acres (2.70 km2) in the southern part of Cranston City housing (and presumably taking labor from):
"the state prison, the Providence county jail, the state workhouse and the house of correction, the state almshouse, the state hospital for the insane, the Sockanosset school for boys, and the Oaklawn school for girls, the last two being departments of the state reform school."
There are prison farms in other countries. Canada has six prison farms. 300 inmates do everything from tending pigs to milking cows. There was talk of Canada getting rid of their prison farms, but so farwhen? no legislation has been introduced. 2
Movies featuring prison farms and forced prison labor:
- Prison Farm (1938)
- Gone with the Wind (1939) scenes of Scarlett O'Hara's leased convicts at work in her lumber mills
- City Without Men (1943)
- Scarecrow (movie) (1973)
- Buckstone County Prison (1978)
- They Went That-A-Way & That-A-Way (1978)
- Brubaker (1980)
- Life (1999)
- O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
- Civil Brand (2002)
- "D.A. McCall, Secretary of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board, Baptizes Convicts on a Prison Farm near Parchman on 18 August 1946". Crime and Punishment: Essential Primary Sources , 2006.
- Lunau, Kate. "Canada to shut down all prison farms". Maclean's , April 13, 2009.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Various relevant sources available on the CorPun website
- David M. Oshinsky, "Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice," On the origins of the penal farm in Mississippi and the preceding convict lease system.
- Thomas, Nicki (Producer: Scott Croteau) "Prison farms facing execution." Capital News Online. Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication. March 5, 2010.