Keeping the prisoners busy

Discussion in 'World Building' started by The Din, Feb 2, 2012.

  1. The Din

    The Din Lore Master

    Looking for reasons to keep 'lifers' alive long term in a decidedly corrupt prison, rather than just hanging the lot of them. No one on the outside cares what happens to them, thus the only reason I can think to keep feeding them is some sort of work program.

    Other than mining, what sort of work could imprisoned men do in a medieval setting? (no sweatshops, has to be something manly.)

    Thanks for any ideas.
  2. Telcontar

    Telcontar Staff Moderator

    There have been a number of prisoner battalions in wartime, for one. In the same vein they could be used for gladiatorial sport.

    Besides mining, farming labor is a possibility. Quarrying or pulverizing rocks to make gravel (smashing rocks - talk about mundane and manly!).

    Or perhaps something specific to your world. Something dirty, dangerous, and necessary - but not requiring special skills.
  3. Anders Ämting

    Anders Ämting Dark Lord

    The only thing that comes to mind right now is metalworking - for example large scale weapon and armor production. Only problem is that giving prisoners/slaves the opportunity to manufacture weapons may not be a very good idea. Alternatively, they could simply be put to work smelting ore in raw metal.

    Actually, if it's a large enough complex you could have some of the prisoners mine ore, some refine it into metal, and some forge the metal into arms and armor. Leave the last part to the ones who have proven themselves the most cooperative and offer them boons to stay in line. That way they all have incentive to behave themselves.
  4. Graham Irwin

    Graham Irwin Mystagogue

    License plates!

    Just kidding. I like the idea of gladiatorial combat.

    Also, perhaps the "leader" of the prisoners knows that the world outside is no longer keeping them imprisoned, but spreads lies amongst the prison population to keep them working and obedient.
  5. Benjamin Clayborne

    Benjamin Clayborne Dark Lord

    Maybe the prison is a front for an evil mage (or group of evil mages) who use the prisoners as some sort of arcane energy source, or conduit; e.g. in order to perform the rituals they need for enchanting magic items, they need to use a human body to channel the energy, but the process is extremely debilitating and painful (but not immediately fatal). A prisoner might be useful for 10-20 such rituals before they expire from the strain on their bodies.

    Or, the mages do magical research on the prisoners; or they use the prisoners as slaves (magical enthrallment); etc.
  6. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

    What Telcontar suggested - pulverising rocks to make gravel - really did happen in the 18th century (I think, possibly for other centuries too). So that's a good one. I guess it depends on what kind of society/economy this location is part of. If it's near a major shipbuilding centre, for example, they might be expected to produce rope. Ships need a lot of that. Miles and miles of the stuff for all the rigging.

    I'd stay away from any kind of metalworking though - those who control the prison would be justifiably concerned that the prisoners would find a way to make weapons from it.
  7. Anders Ämting

    Anders Ämting Dark Lord

    Only if that concern outweighs the profit of selling said metal. Remember, that's the main reason they are keeping prisoners in the first place, otherwise they'd just kill them all to keep the food costs down. So, if the money keeps rolling in and the security is kept heavy and strict, I could certainly see why the guys running the prison would consider it worth the risk.

    Besides, assuming the people in charge aren't the good guys here, giving the prisoners the means to escape/start a riot may work to the story's advantage.
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2012
  8. San Cidolfus

    San Cidolfus Mystagogue

    It was mentioned above that prisoners were used in combat. This was decidedly true around the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when mercenary captains would regularly put prisoners in the front lines of their formations, mixed in with hopeful recruits. The intention was for the prisoners and recruits to soak up fire from the enemy crossbowmen and arquebuses while the formation advanced, so that when the melee hit, the hardcore troops--just behind the fodder--would be fresh and spunky for the fray. If any of those up front survived, they were considered for "promotion" into the regulars. I can't be certain, but I believe they used to call those expendable front ranks forsaken bands.

    You didn't say whether or not your listless prisoners included any of your main characters, but if so, that's a fun way to meet a character: thrown in the front line to live or die in the crush of melee.
  9. Codey Amprim

    Codey Amprim Staff Article Team

    What everyone has said so far is really good. Just to add to the list, I'd say something like woodcutting or a similar task that requires hard work. Since you want to keep them alive, they could also work in fields to gather grains and whatnot. I would use mine to help build fortifications or other temporary defense structures like wooden spike-lines (don't know if there is a proper name for that). Why would they want to defend their imprisonment? They could be told that the attackers would slaughter them if the area was taken. The possibilities go on and on. I do like the quarrying idea, though.
  10. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    What were they arrested for? I wouldn't want to give convicted three-time killers a weapon-like tool, no matter how much security was in place, especially in a system that corrupt. You'll have casualties before you stop them, and then you may as well have had the dead guard doing the work instead.

    Which is the bigger problem, the work would have to be pretty nasty because cheap labor is cheaper than slaves, and slaves are cheaper than prisoners. So what would be so bad that you'd want to save your valuable slaves from the work and give it to your worst element? Work that paid laborers wouldn't be willing to do? I think it'd have to be pretty bad. Siberian frozen rock kind of bad. I mean, sure we give our killers work programs, but there's a lot of differences between our system and a very corrupt one. We keep them alive because it wouldn't be right to do otherwise; since we have them, and want to rehabilitate them, we poor a little money into giving them work programs. But if we didn't care about them? That's a lot of money to spend housing and securing and feeding lousy, violent workers.

    People have mentioned the use of prisoners in warfare. If they're violent criminals I would personally expect it to be a group that was expected to die. I'll add, some countries have sent out prisoners into minefields, and you might find some magical equivalency to it - or even mundane booby traps.

    But the best reason to keep prisoners that I can think of? I'd go with psychological torture, mind games, testing what people are capable of and what can push them over the edge. In short, I'd set up a prisoner laboratory to study them and create situations to see what makes them kill each other.

    Of course, that's all assuming they're a bit violent, that they deserved life in prison. You can set up any kind of program you want if these are people who were convicted of gathering in groups larger than four and criticizing the government. It all depends.
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2012
  11. Anders Ämting

    Anders Ämting Dark Lord

    Perhaps slavery is formally illegal, so you can't get away with it in public whereas exploiting convicts as free workforce is overlooked due to corruption?

    Also, how do slaves cost more then paid workers? I mean, isn't the whole point about slavery that you don't actually have to pay slaves? And these prisoners should be even cheaper then slaves since it's not like you have to buy them.
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2012
  12. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    Obviously there's some wiggle room. But paid workers were poor, barely fed themselves, could live alone in alleyways or else stuffed in a room with 20 other people. Slaves were generally mellow, live in their own wooden shacks, had to be presentable both in hygiene and wardrobe to their owners, and because they were generally mellow, some were made overseers to help manage other slaves while they work. Prisoners are violent, live in stone walls, and have a plethora of armed guards watching over them at all times. I would have thought the cost patterns were obvious.
  13. Anders Ämting

    Anders Ämting Dark Lord

    Yeah, but its not like these guys use their own money to keep the prisoners locked away and fed. Prisons don't usually produce revenue, so they have to get funding from somewhere, most likely the local goverment. (Who of course don't know what's going on.)

    So, they use taxpayer money to keep the prison running while forcing the inmates into slave labour and living like kings from the profit. Heck, they are more likely to cut down on the inmate budget and pocket that money as well. What they actually have to spend of their own income on this would mainly be on equipment and bribes.
  14. Gwynneth White

    Gwynneth White Apprentice

    You are positively evil! i love it.
  15. Epaminondas

    Epaminondas Journeyman

    Have you ever looked much into the lend/lease prison system in the reconstruction era south?

    Essentially the law gave the state the power to rent out prisoners to local businesses and city governments to build bridges, roads, or simply to work loading grain a mill or in a store... Anything really. It was essentially a loophole in the new slavery laws. The local businessmen got very cheap labor, not quite "slave" wages but pretty close. To the prison system the lucrative contracts actually made the prisoners a source of revenue instead of an expense.
    It was a very corrupt system rife with kickbacks, good-ole-boy contracts, abuses of prisoners. Might be able to adapt something like that for your purpose.

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