Penal function of [unpaid] work

To my surprise, beliefs about unpaid work came up as one of the most original findings of my study. Work was overwhelmingly viewed as the most appropriate and beneficial form of punishment in my research. Therefore, the next couple of posts will explore this matter a little bit more.

Work as punishment has a long tradition in many countries and has been predominantly performed in the form of prison labour, or more recently, as a community sanction. While the major penal function of work in the past was to instil discipline, the current rationale is to prepare prisoners for life after release, or when in the form of unpaid community sanction, constitutes an essential part of most countries’ sentencing policies.

Performing work of benefit to the community by wrong-doers has evolved over the years in all European jurisdictions and, alongside electronic monitoring or community justice innovations, unpaid work has become one of the new forms of community sanction. In the field of restorative justice, ‘work’ falls under the heading of reparation or restitution, which is performed by the offender and addressed directly to the victim or community. It is however the concept of prison labour/work that gains more attention.

Penal labour, both under the name of galley slavery, deportation, or penal servitude, has always been a substantial feature of imprisonment and partially replaced capital and corporal punishment in the late sixteenth century. Historically, there have been three main principles behind work in prison settings: discipline and deterrence, a commercialised form of industry/self-sufficiency, and moral reformation/rehabilitation (Hawkins, 1983; Matthews, 2009).

Throughout prison history, both economic and non-economic factors have shaped the functioning of prison labour. To illustrate this point Hawkins (1983) pointed to the work of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who documented the condition of English prisons and penal labour in the nineteenth century England. The scholars demonstrated the diversity in the organization of prison labour based on their comparison between Coldbath Fields Prison, as an example of an unproductive system of punitive labour, and Wakefield Prison, as an example of a developing prison industry. It was the Home Office 1865-77 policy that undermined profitable prison employment in English correctional facilities and reinstated the penal character of prison discipline (Hawkins, 1983).

Matthews’ (2009) argument is that prison labour has always been looked at through the ‘less eligibility’ principle – a rarely-explored and referred-to concept. The notion of ‘less eligibility’ originated in the writings of Jeremy Bentham and was embedded in the English 1834 Poor Laws, which called for the standard of prison conditions to be below the minimum standard of living for those living outside prison (Hawkins, 1983). Likewise, profitable employment and training of prisoners attracted a certain antagonism during the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s, when the employment of prisoners on the open market was changed to work on public projects or at agricultural work (Sieh, 1989). Hawkins (1983) argued that the logic of the concept significantly influenced the operation of criminal justice systems in terms of prison reforms, prison work conditions, rehabilitation and parole conditions; long-term failure to develop effective and profitable prison industries is not due to economic constraints but the persistent influence of the principle of ‘less eligibility’, deeply rooted in people’s minds and embedded in Western penal policies.

Although penal labour has been a prison feature in many countries, some scholars argue that there are distinctive characteristics when it comes to prison labour in Eastern European countries. Piacentini (2008) observed that the Soviet construction of crime and punishment involves the combination of hard labour and exile. The idea of exile and hard labour also appeared along with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, when the notion of re-education through labour was mirrored in the relevant law and implemented after the revolution in 1918 (Andrejew, 1981).  A great illustration of the relationship between prison and labour camps is the Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

In my research, the discussions around the penal function of work served as a tool that unlocked a broader picture. I consider [unpaid] work as a feature that might define ‘Polishness’ and to some extent sets Poland apart from other nations. Firstly, confidence in work appeared as a solution to the failures of the nineteenth-century uprisings in Poland. It was believed that the best initiative to remedy the situation was to renew Polish society, and revert to the defence of national interest through social, economic, and cultural initiatives – something that had already been somewhat of a tradition in Poland and was known as ‘organic work’ (praca organiczna). The tenets of ‘organic work’ became an element of nineteenth-century Polish political thought, and aimed at neutralizing the revolutionary attempts to restore Poland’s independence, and instead, encouraging capitalistic entrepreneurship and improving the economic wellbeing of the nation (Blejwas, 1970). Secondly, the time of communism served as a social incubator where work as a symbol of Polish social imagery was further strengthened. Andrzej Leder, in his historical study entitled An over-dreamed revolution: an exercise in historical logic (2014), drew on Charles Taylor’s general concept of social imagery, and investigated contemporary values, and symbols through which Poles imagine their society. Leder has emphasized that work, among many other features, has always served as a distinctive symbol in Polish social imagery that stems mainly from peasant heritage and experience of the socialist regime. The class of Homo Sovieticus – the new Soviet people – was composed of workers who were mainly of peasant descent. Trades such as miner or steelmaker were particularly praised and honoured by Party officials. Thirdly, the peasant origins of Polish society were also interestingly depicted by Wasilewski (1986), who observed that Polish society’s awareness, culture and ideology are determined by its peasantry. Wasilewski outlined the key characteristic features for peasant societies as: direct contact with nature and dependency on nature to a high degree, field attachment, self-help, humility before the forces of nature, risk-averseness, high religiosity, mistrust of the outside world – and a very strong work ethic.

My participants’ trust in work demonstrated a long tradition of ‘work glorification’ in the Polish context – something that is not a surprise any longer. This particular discovery took me back to Garland’s definition of punishment – punishment is not only a reaction to crime; it can serve as a key with which one can unlock a larger cultural text; it is a social construct shaped by various social forces that has its own historical tradition and cultural styles, as well as being intended to perform varying instrumental roles (Garland, 1991).


Andrejew, I. (1981) Le droit pénal comparé des pays socialistes.

Blejwas, S.A. (1970) The origins and practice of ‘Organic Work’ in Poland: 1795-1863. The Polish Review, 15(4), 23-54.

Garland. D. (1991) Sociological Perspectives on Punishment. Crime and Justice, 14, 115-165.

Hawkins, G. (1983) Prison Labour and Prison Industries. Crime and Justice, 5, 85-127.

Leder, A. (2014) Prześniona rewolucja. Ćwiczenie z logiki historycznej (A dreamed revolution: an exercise from the historical logic).

Matthews, R. (2009) Doing time. An Introduction to the Sociology of Imprisonment.

Piacentini, L. (2008) Burden or Benefit? Paradoxes of Penal Transition in Russia in K. McEvoy and L. McGregor (eds.) Transitional Justice from Below: Grassroots Activism and the Struggle for Change.

Sieh, E.W. (1989) Less Eligibility: The Upper Limits of Penal Policy. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 3(2), 159-183.

Wasilewski, J. (1986) Społeczeństwo polskie, społeczeństwo chłopskie [Polish society, peasant society] Studia Socjologiczne, 3(102), 39-56.

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