Correction in the Countryside: Convict Labour in Rural Germany 1871-1914
AbstractOver the course of the Empire demand for labour in the countryside and penal reform together created the conditions for a greater deployment of prisoners, workhouse inmates and young offenders in agriculture. Farming on site, and especially leasing offenders, were the most cost-efficient ways of detaining men. Agricultural work was also regarded as key to their rehabilitation. It served to equip inmates upon release for the sector of the economy most in need of workers. ‘Outside work’ away from the institution was also seen as an intermediate stage in the prisoner's sentence before release. Two developments in the charitable sector complemented this correctional strategy: the emergence of a network of workers’ farming colonies which acted as half-way houses for ex-prisoners after release, and ex-offender employment programmes run by prisoner welfare societies, channelling ex-offenders towards agricultural employment. Despite these efforts to reintegrate offenders, re-offending rates remained high. Penal authorities either attributed this to the incorrigibility of some inmates, or pushed for longer sentences. In some cases penal and medical authorities were inclined to re-interpret the criminal behaviour of repeat offenders as behaviour symptomatic of mental illness, and some inmates were transferred to asylums. In the discourse surrounding the failure of reform the argument that the exclusionary and punitive nature of the prison and workhouse régime actually worked against rehabilitation held little sway, nor the argument that high re-offending rates could be attributed to the vagrancy and begging laws which criminalized systemic poverty and homelessness. Absent here was any understanding that the life offered following release, working as ancillary workers or hands on the estates, bore too striking a resemblance to work in agriculture during detention. This in itself was one major reason why many ex-offenders directed into agricultural employment after release refused to stay and work.
CitationGerman History, 24(1): 39-61
PublisherLondon: Sage Publications