I'm aware that some democratic countries, including the US and Japan allow forced prison labor, meaning that refusal to work in prison is punishable e.g. by solitary confinement (or a "chill box"). As there seems to be some confusion what this means, in the US for example

the courts have held that inmates may be required to work and are not protected by the constitutional prohibition against involuntary servitude. Correctional standards promulgated by the American Correctional Association provide that sentenced inmates, who are generally housed in maximum, medium, or minimum security prisons, be required to work and be paid for that work. Some states require, as with Arizona, all able-bodied inmates to work. From 2010 to 2015 and again in 2016 and 2018, some prisoners in the US refused to work, protesting for better pay, better conditions and for the end of forced labor. Strike leaders have been punished with indefinite solitary confinement.

And in Japan

most crimes are punished by “imprisonment with labour" [...]

“Handbook for Life in Prison" of the Fuchu Prison in Tokyo states as follows:

“The most important part of your sentence is that you fulfill your duty of assigned labour. Prisoners who are sentenced to imprisonment with labour are obliged under the law to engage in the work to which they are assigned. If without good reason a prisoner refuses to work, skips work or demands to change the type of work, it will be considered as an action against that duty and severe measures may be taken."

So I'm not talking merely about voluntary prison labor, even though this may be incentivized in some way, e.g. being seen favorably by parole boards, or even conferring concrete privileges while in prison etc. (Such as is the case in the UK, for example).

Are there any EU countries that allow a similar forced prison labor practice? If not, is it because of some CJEU or ECHR decision? Or some treaty provision?

1 Answer 1


The answer to this will be gradual rather than "black and white." A prison is inherently a coercive institution and what may be seen as "denial of incentives" could equally be seen as "punishments" if one takes getting those incentives as the default state.

In Germany, prisoners get the "opportunity" to work and/or do vocational training and the output of these factories is sold outside the prison. Working is a chance to earn a (tiny) salary which can be spent on "luxuries" like coffee. And completing vocational training and then working quietly and without fuss will look good to parole boards.

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    It's not what I'm asking though. Both US and Japan allow forced labor as an integral part of the sentence (follow the links for the details) rather than an opportunity to get some benefits in prison. Dec 25, 2019 at 8:18
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    @Fizz, when one compares international systems, one has to judge the effects and not the label. When inmates are "free" to refuse, but this refusal leads to below-average conditions for them, are they really "free" to refuse? I think not. Certain categories of prison in both North Korea and Russia are customarily translated "labor camp" in English, but they're not the same.
    – o.m.
    Dec 25, 2019 at 8:49
  • I heard that humans need certain hours of physical activity everyday. Confining to a cell is dangerous, so the work has been made mandatory. Not sure to what extent this is applicable.
    – user29025
    Dec 25, 2019 at 17:43
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    @o.m. I very much doubt there is any prison in the western world that is made profitable to the taxpayer by inmates working.
    – gnasher729
    Dec 28, 2019 at 11:57
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    @gnasher729, one reason why forcing prisoners to work is "difficult" in my view (i.e. "needs careful consideration of the rights and wrongs," not "cannot be done") is that the prisoners face a severely restricted set of choices, separate from the normal labor market. So if society decides to lock them up, society should pay the bill in full. Re profitable prisons, consider the Ferguson scandal in the US. It was about fines, not labor, but it highlights why considerable safeguards are a good idea.
    – o.m.
    Dec 28, 2019 at 17:34

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