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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
Hello, Unknown Troper. You'll need to get known to lend a hand here.