Created By: Stormtroper on May 14, 2010 Last Edited By: DoctorCooper on June 19, 2016
Troped

Prisoner's Work

Prisoners are forced to do certain jobs.

Name Space:
Main
Page Type:
Trope
Prisoners don't just sit in their cell for five to ten years in this trope. Rather, they are put to work at something repetitive, tiring, or both.

Truth in Television. Victorian prisons would normally put weaker prisoners to work picking oakum (unraveling old ropes for reuse as ship caulking), and stronger prisoners would spend their days moving rocks or cannonballs or walking on the treadwheel. Modern examples include stamping license plates, breaking boulders into smaller rocks, and picking up trash/digging weeds along the roads. This trope does not require that the work actually be productive; a Victorian punishment job was using a crank to stir sand in a barrel. Working on the Chain Gang is a subtrope covering those cases when a group of (usually) male prisoners would be chained together to perform some task.

A variant form of this trope is when prisoners of war are compelled to work. The Laws and Customs of War limit what POWs can be made to do for their captors, but fiction tends to stretch the rules for drama.

Prison labor has become controversial in recent years. Manufacturers object to prisoner-made items being sold on the open market, because prisoners don't have to be paid and their products can thus be sold for much less. That bit about not paying prisoners for their labor tends to remind a lot of people of the bad old days of slavery, especially given the now-banned practice in the American South of leasing groups of black prisoners (purely coincidence, of course) to white plantation or factory owners. For these reasons, No Real Life Examples, Please!

Compare to Trading Bars for Stripes, where the "labor" is "join the military", and Boxed Crook, where there's a clear agreement that one job equals freedom.


Examples:

Anime and Manga
  • The Great Hell Castle by Hiroshi Hirata has a Japanese lord order the prisoners of his castle to dig out a huge pit, then quarry and bring in huge boulders to line the walls and make it watertight, then carry water up a cliff and fill in the pit. When the backbreaking effort is done, having taken many prisoners with it, he orders them to empty the water, destroy the walls, and fill it in, killing those who protest. This is done multiple times over fifteen years, with the promise that those who survive (many die from the work and the harsh overseers, others commit suicide) will become samurai.

Comic Book

Fan Works
  • Shows up in two Star Wars fics:
    • Going Solo: Luke, Han and Leia are being made to haul rocks until Han, who already has an injured arm with a knife tip still embedded, passes out. Then the focus shifts to basically how much the Mad Doctor can torture Han while 'treating' it and the gang escaping.
    • The Jedi Way: Sacrifice: Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon are being forced to work. The trouble is, Qui-Gon breaks his previously injured knee. Obi-Wan tries to do both his work and his Master's so Qui-Gon won't starve, but it soon becomes too much and Qui-Gon executes an escape plan before Obi-Wan dies on him.

Film
  • Rambo is shown doing the "making big rocks into little rocks" bit with a sledgehammer for his stunts in First Blood.
  • Megamind: The title character lands in a prison and is set to work making license plates.
  • Superman II: While they're incarcerated in Metropolis Prison, Lex Luthor and his henchman Otis work in the prison laundry.
  • Take the Money and Run: Woody Allen's character works in the prison laundry, where he steals t-shirts for a proposed prison escape by putting them on. He builds up so many layers he ends up looking like a bodybuilder from the waist up.
  • The Shawshank Redemption has the prison use inmates for cheap labour.
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai: Captured British soldiers are forced to build a railroad bridge.
  • The Phantom Of The Paradise: After Winslow Leech is jailed on trumped-up charges, he's forced to work a record press.

Literature
  • In the Escape from Furnace series, prisoners in the eponymous 'Furnace' prison are forced to use pickaxes to mine out new rooms in order to expand the place (the prison is located underground).
  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: The Gulag prisoners have to build the walls of a new building, and the main character mentions another labor camp where he had to cut trees.
  • Holes: Though more a correctional facility than a prison, the delinquents sent to Camp Green Lake are made to dig very precise holes in the ground from practically dawn until dusk under the pretense of building character.

Live-Action Television
  • Oz: The prison industry is a dress factory. Anyone who doesn't have a job elsewhere in the prison (mail room, kitchen, etc.) ends up working there.

Tabletop Games
  • Call of Cthulhu: The supplement Cthulhu Companion: Ghastly Adventures and Erudite Lore includes a list of jobs prisoners can perform in its article on prisons.
    Big House State Pen (U.S.). The prisoners work on various state contracts, such as making license plates.
    Wayshearn Co. Work Farm (U.S.). The prisoners are put on standard chain gangs repairing county roads.
    Boleta Ocho (Latin America). Sometimes a wealthy person will draft a hundred or so prisoners to work on a bridge or road, cut sugar cane or fight a fire.

Video Games
  • SimCity 3000: The maximum security prison gives the fun statistic "license plates created".
  • One of the Game Over screens in Amazon: Guardians Of Eden mentions spending your days in jail stamping out license plates.

Web Comics
  • Girl Genius: Prisoners are shipped from across Europa to (try to) repair Castle Heterodyne, a sentient and insane castle full of deathtraps. Practically it's a death sentence with delay, but prisoners may be set free if they turn out great at repairing the castle. And survive it.

Western Animation
  • Fairly OddParents - The kid's play area is depicted as a prison, complete with license plate stamping machine.
  • Spongebob Squarepants - When Mrs. Puff goes to prison, she's shown chipping at large boulders at one point.
  • Johnny Bravo: While an inmate, he's told to chip a large boulder apart, glue it back together, then chip it up again.
  • Western Animation/The Simpsons: Sideshow Bob works making license plates with "RIP BART" "DIE BART" "BART DOA" and "IH8 BART" on them.
  • The Looney Tunes Show: Lampshaded by Bugs Bunny in the episode "Jailbird and Jailbunny".
    Excuse me, but what are we doing here? Are we building something or are we just making big rocks into little rocks?

Community Feedback Replies: 53
  • May 14, 2010
    dotchan
    • Fairly Odd Parents - The kid's play area is depicted as a prison, complete with license plate stamping machine.
    • Spongebob Squarepants - When Mrs. Puff goes to prison, she's shown chipping at large boulders at one point.
  • May 14, 2010
    randomsurfer
    The Three Stooges did the boulders bit on several occasions.
  • May 14, 2010
    DorianMode
    There's also chain gangs, particularly in anything set down South.
  • May 15, 2010
    Chabal2
    The iconic version seems to be smashing rocks for whatever reason (Mostly seen in Lucky Luke, but O Brother Where Art Thou also used it).
  • May 15, 2010
    IronLion
    Inmates of Victorian prisons were required to operate treadwheels and hand-powered cranks. Sometimes this would serve a useful function, but sometimes they'd just be stirring sand in a barrel.
  • May 15, 2010
    Unknown Troper
    Rambo is literally shown doing the "making big rocks into little rocks" bit with a sledgehammer for his stunts in First Blood.
  • May 15, 2010
    Unknown Troper
    Perhaps Stock Prison Work would be a better title.
  • April 29, 2011
    HersheleOstropoler
    I could have sworn I put this in ages ago, but it petered out. Keep an eye on this, don't let it suffer the same fate. You might note it's a Super Trope of Working On The Chain Gang. Also, as an example, in Megamind, the title character lands in a prison and is set to work making license plates.
  • April 29, 2011
    randomsurfer
    • The Simpsons: Sideshow Bob works making license plates with "RIP BART" "DIE BART" "BART DOA" and "IH8 BART" on them.
    • Superman II: Lex Luthor works in prison making license plates.
    • In Take The Money And Run Woody Allen's character works in the prison laundry, where he steals t-shirts for a proposed Prison Escape by putting them on. He builds up so many layers he ends up looking like a bodybuilder from the waist up.
  • April 30, 2011
    foxley
    We have Working On The Chain Gang for the chipping boulders version.
  • April 30, 2011
    captainbrass2
    • That you would end up labouring in a Siberian salt-mine if you did anything the Government didn't like was practically an Obligatory Joke when Soviet Russia came up in any media before glasnost. The labour camps were, unfortunately, Truth In Television.
  • April 30, 2011
    Arivne
    Film
    • Superman II. While they're incarcerated in Metropolis Prison, Lex Luthor and his henchman Otis work in the prison laundry.
  • May 1, 2011
    HersheleOstropoler
    @foxley: do we? It seems to me that Working On The Chain Gang means working on the chain gang, regardless of the nature of the work, not chipping boulders in general.
  • May 1, 2011
    SeanMurrayI
    ^ Indeed, Working On The Chain Gang is NOT about chipping boulders or anything in particular but for any type of hard labor performed by prisoners shackled together (though with a greater emphasis put on the concept of a group of prisoners being shackled together). It's would certainly be a very closely related trope though.
  • May 2, 2011
    foxley
    You're right. It is about working while chained together, but a fair number of the examples also involve chipping boulders.
  • May 2, 2011
    OneInTwenty
    I seem to remember the end of a Batman the Animated Series ending with the Joker or Penguin working on license plates, and cursing because the plate he'd been given to work on was something like "1BAT4YOU" or something.
  • May 2, 2011
    Bisected8
    Making postbags is another common task in older works.
  • May 3, 2011
    neoYTPism
    The Shawshank Redemption has the prison use inmates for cheap labour.
  • May 4, 2011
    foxley
    In Oz, the prison industry is a dress factory. Anyone who doesn't have a job elsewhere in the prison (mail room, kitchen, etc.) ends up working there.
  • May 4, 2011
    peccantis
    To elaborate, in Lucky Luke they always break boulders.

    Webcomics:
    • In Girl Genius, some prisoners are sent to repair Castle Heterodyne. Sound ok right? Not if you knew that Castle Heterodyne is a sentient castle mostly consisting of machinery and deathtraps. It is also broken... more like "insane". Practically it's a death sentence with delay, but prosoners may also be set free if they turn out great at repairing the castle. And survive it.
  • May 4, 2011
    jaytee
    The PI (Prison Industry.. which could be a trope name) in Prison Break is this trope, except we never really see the inmates do much work.
  • May 5, 2011
    Frank75
    In German works, prisoners are often making paper bags.

    In One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, the GULAG prisoners have to build the walls of a new building, and the main character mentions another labor camp where he had to cut trees.

    Männerpension (a contemporary German movie) shows them painting toy gnomes.
  • May 19, 2011
    TonyG
    Lampshaded by Bugs Bunny on The Looney Tunes Show, "Jailbird and Jailbunny".
    Excuse me, but what are we doing here? Are we building something or are we just making big rocks into little rocks?
  • May 19, 2011
    jaytee
    I took the liberty of adding an Up For Grabs tag. It's a year and five days old and the OP never responded.
  • May 19, 2011
    Riddlewizard
    In Borderlands, before the story starts, the companies have convicts for all menial labor, particularly mining- until the companies leave Pandora when the wildlife came out of hibernation, and let them loose.
  • May 19, 2011
    Riddlewizard
    And you may or may not want to add this to the description- "Prisoners in fiction typically do hard labor and monotonous tasks and may or may not receive food at the end of the day based on whether or not they performed the tasks assigned. This may be because the prison staff are feeling cruel, or for the practical purposes of (A) Making money for the prison, or (B) Tiring out the prisoners so that they won't be as much of a problem (As in fighting, riots, etc" Note that this is Truth In Television, as some of the southern United States (The Carolinas, for example) still have some prisons where prisoners chip rocks all day and other such labor, and prisoners earn their meal. A relative of mine was there and found out that wasn't Hollywood lies the hard way......
  • May 20, 2011
    neoYTPism
    Did you see my earlier mention of The Shawshank Redemption? @ Stormtroper and jaytee
  • May 20, 2011
    jaytee
    ^I'm not taking over this trope and stormtrooper appears to have abandoned it (it's a year old). Feel free to update it yourself.
  • February 20, 2012
    Oreochan
    Since this is almost two years now. I'll adopt it and see what I can do with it.
  • February 21, 2012
    animeg3282
    Picking up trash on the side of the road?
  • February 21, 2012
    captainsandwich
    Should we mention Real Life cause this has happened in the US before.
  • February 21, 2012
    Arivne
    Tabletop RPG
    • Call Of Cthulhu supplement Cthulhu Companion: Ghastly Adventures and Erudite Lore. The article on Prisons has a list of jobs the prisoners perform.
      • Big House State Pen (U.S.). The prisoners work on various state contracts, such as making license plates.
      • Wayshearn Co. Work Farm (U.S.). The prisoners are put on standard chain gangs repairing county roads.
      • Boleta Ocho (Latin America). Sometimes a wealthy person will draft a hundred or so prisoners to work on a bridge or road, cut sugar cane or fight a fire.
  • February 21, 2012
    Catbert
    I would suggest a No Real Life Examples Please. Prison labour is a very controversial topic.
  • February 21, 2012
    Heather
    You mean that Stamping License Plates isn't already a trope? Maybe it's just an earlier version of "Don't drop the soap", though (one-line joke intended to communicate incarceration).
  • February 21, 2012
    compro01
    In Sim City 3000, the maximum security prison gives the fun statistic "license plates created".
  • February 21, 2012
    TomWalpertac2
  • May 5, 2012
    HersheleOstropoler
    Bumping, this has been going for two years, it has plenty of examples, pretty clear, now it needs hats.
  • February 13, 2016
    Generality
    ^ Someone needs to corral the examples into a comprehensive trope page first.

    Not having real life examples is a good idea, but we should mention that this is Truth In Television, going back a long way in history, and most prison states to this day have forced labor (including the United States, for a given meaning of 'forced') as a way of creating an economic boost for the facilities. It might not be wise to mention the term "prison industrial complex".

    On that note, a lot of historical and fantasy works feature prisoners working specifically in salt mines, which is also truth in television. It probably deserves its own subtrope, honestly.
  • February 13, 2016
    zarpaulus
    See also, Trading Bars For Stripes, where prisoners are instead conscripted into the military.
  • February 13, 2016
    Chabal2
    The Great Hell Castle by Hiroshi Hirata has a Japanese lord order the prisoners of his castle to dig out a huge pit, then quarry and bring in huge boulders to line the walls and make it watertight, then carry water up a cliff and fill in the pit. When the backbreaking effort is done, having taken many prisoners with it, he orders them to empty the water, destroy the walls, and fill it in, killing those who protest. This is done multiple times over fifteen years, with the promise that those who survive (many die from the work and the harsh overseers, others commit suicide) will become samurai.
  • February 13, 2016
    StrixObscuro
    Film Live Action
  • February 13, 2016
    DAN004
    Okay, how is this not Working On The Chain Gang again?
  • February 14, 2016
    Arivne
    ^ The Description of Working On The Chain Gang says that it's about prisoners being chained together. Also, the work they do is almost always outdoors.

    This is a Super Trope covering all kinds of prison labor, including Working On The Chain Gang as well as jobs where the prisoners work indoors or aren't chained together.

    Film
    • Superman II. Lex Luthor and his henchman Otis are shown working in the prison laundry.
  • February 14, 2016
    Antigone3
    If we're going to have a No Real Life Examples Please flag on the trope, then the Victorian prison example needs to go (though it could move to the description).
  • February 14, 2016
    Antigone3
    OK, went through and sorted examples. I wish we still had red links for when someone types a work title in Camel Case but there's no page for that work.
  • February 14, 2016
    Chabal2
    Holes is in Literature.
  • February 14, 2016
    chicagomel
    Music: The song "Chain Gang" is about this.

    Fan Works: Star Wars:
    • In Going Solo, Luke, Han and Leia are being made to haul rocks until Han, who already has an injured arm with a knife tip still embedded, passes out. Then the focus shifts to basically how much the Mad Doctor can torture Han while 'treating' it and the gang escaping.
    • In The Jedi Way: Sacrifice, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon are being forced to work. The trouble is, Qui-Gon breaks his previously injured knee. Obi-Wan tries to do both his work and his Master's so Qui-Gon won't starve, but it soon becomes too much and Qui-Gon executes an escape plan before Obi-Wan dies on him.
  • February 14, 2016
    chicagomel
    Nevermind it was my script blocker I think.
  • February 14, 2016
    DAN004
    So Boxed Crook is a subtrope too, right?
  • February 15, 2016
    Antigone3
    I'd call Boxed Crook a related trope, rather than a subtrope. Boxed Crook is a quid-pro-quo, one job for freedom. With this trope, the work is for the benefit of the prison (either prison-made items being sold for money, or prisoners being too tired to riot or try to escape), the prisoners don't really get much out of it.
  • February 15, 2016
    Antigone3
    Chabal2 — moved Holes to the right spot. If you've read it, was the hole-digging actually all night long or did the original poster mean "dawn to dusk"?

    Chicagomel, if we're thinking about the same song that would go under Working On The Chain Gang.
  • February 15, 2016
    Generality
    ^ Actually, they just had to dig one hole per day, five foot deep and five across, it just happened to take most of them all day to do so.
  • February 16, 2016
    Antigone3
    ^ Swapped the order, thanks (dusk to dawn means all night, it sounds like dawn to dusk is what the original commenter meant)
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=hn673u1t53eu3i91e7c1niew