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A relative is insisting that currently, in our state, which is New York, prison inmates are required to do "hard labor." I was skeptical, but I tried to find some evidence of this by searching the internet. I found a Mother Jones article that talked about prison jobs, but I didn't find anything about "hard labor." Is what he's telling me true?

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    I think you need to get your friend to clarify what hard labor is. Do they do jobs for pennies on the hour (literally)? Yes. Do they break rocks with pickaxes all day long like in old movies? No. – David says Reinstate Monica Apr 9 '17 at 22:56
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    We've got here is a failure to communicate. Hard labor now just means labor. Skeptics.SE seems a much better place for this. – user9389 Apr 9 '17 at 22:59
  • Skeptics wouldn't take this without a notable claim. Relatives are not notable. Magazines and newspapers generally are. I think that "required" may be somewhat strong. – Brythan Apr 10 '17 at 1:43
  • @DavidGrinberg - Great suggestion. I asked. I had to ask about three more times to get him to answer, and somewhere in there he bandied about the phrase "chain gang," too, so I asked him to describe the work that would involve being chained to his fellow inmates while working. Eventually I succeeded in getting him to define his terms. He meant very hard work and working as though you're in a chain gang. If you write an answer I'll accept it. – aparente001 Apr 10 '17 at 3:55
  • @notstoreboughtdirt - see above. Your comment could also be an answer I could accept to close this out. Thank you all. – aparente001 Apr 10 '17 at 3:56
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Yes, New York can require prisoners to work.

The New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) oversees prisons, parole, and other parts of the criminal justice system in the state of New York. Within DOCCS, the Correctional Industries program oversees vocational programs. These are programs that allow inmates to work as part of their sentence.

Vocational programs allow, but do not require, convicts to work. Working generally has a few benefits:

  • Convicts often lack job skills or the social skills necessary to be successful outside of prison. Without these skills, their recidivism rate is particularly high. Vocational programs provide the convict a better chance of reintegrating into society and reduce the risk of re-offending.
  • Idle hands can be dangerous in a prison. By providing work opportunities DCCS reduces misbehavior, violence, and other issues within the prison system.
  • It can reduce costs or generate revenue for the prison system.

As an interesting historical note, New York was the first American state to allow paid prison labor. John Jay, Founding Father, Supreme Court Justice, but then Governor of New York, signed the act back in 1778. You can read about it on page 246 of "The Constitutional History of New York".

No, this is not "hard labor".

This is different than hard labor. The idea of hard labor is that, once convicted, a person is sentenced to "work off" their crime. The state, community, or firm can receive value from the convict without having to pay them (except subsistence). The philosophy behind this is that they have done harm, but that society can extract value from them to makeup for some of it (or punish them by giving them undesirable work). In any case, it isn't voluntary and it isn't for the convict's own good.

For more information, see the wikipedia article "Convict lease".

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