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Thread: Keeping the prisoners busy

  1. #1

    Keeping the prisoners busy

    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. #2
    Moderator Telcontar's Avatar
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    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.
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  3. #3
    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.
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  4. #4
    Senior Member Graham Irwin's Avatar
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    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. Please visit my website!

  5. #5
    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. #6
    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. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Chilari View Post
    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.
    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 by Anders Ämting; 2-2-12 at 6:13 PM.
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  8. #8
    Senior Member San Cidolfus's Avatar
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    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.
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  9. #9
    Senior Member Codey Amprim's Avatar
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    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. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by The Din View Post
    Other than mining, what sort of work could imprisoned men do in a medieval setting? (no sweatshops, has to be something manly.)
    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 by Devor; 2-2-12 at 11:04 PM.
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