The organization of Soviet labor camps hoped to accomplish a number of purposes. These projects were improvements on the infrastructure of the Soviet Union and, ultimately, the economy. Considering how swiftly the Belomor was completed (“Twenty months and it must be built cheaply” –Stalin) and the lack of material resources, this success was based primarily on the re-purposing of an otherwise idle prison population. Granted, the ‘labor camp’ style of punishment in the Russian penal system was established long before Soviet rule but the Soviets were the first to implement it on such a large and effective scale. Removal of ‘undesirables’ was, as we can see from Stalin’s policies, a high priority. These “enemies of the State” would then (hopefully) be re-educated by exposure to a good Soviet work ethic. This pool of shiftless ‘kulaks’ isolated to the wilderness would provide the Soviet Union with a valuable resource key to large projects, such as the Belomor Canal, developing in the Union –cheap labor.
At the same time, the United States was facing some of the earliest waves of incarceration increases while also not greatly revising her penal system.Moving into the 1930s, labor derived from the then locally-managed institutions was made illegal and a national “Bureau of Prisons” was formed. Now in charge of more than 160 institutions, and with very little experience, the Bureau prescribed a “penopticon” model to their prisons –a style which allowed for maximum surveillance of a maximum number of inmates. The prison population would not stop increasing until the onset of America’s involvement in World War II. Many historians argue that American productivity and mass of troops helped turn the European front. But, how different is this from the labor in the Soviet camps? We can say that the quality of life was far better and the pay, of course. But, the camps were focused on a mass of cheap labor. When the prisons were releasing such numbers of inmates, a mass of labor was definitely produced and the larger general supply of labor provided lower wages to employers — though not the free prison labor of Stalin’s camps.
If we examine both countries now, when the U.S. and Russia are both among the world’s top ten largest incarceration rates (716/100,000 citizens and 490/100,000 respectively), should we expect any change in penal policy?
Eastern State Penitentiary Documentary with Emily Smith.Eastern State Penitentiary
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