What Is a Penal Colony?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 28 December 2019
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A penal colony is a self-supporting settlement that uses prisoners for the bulk of its labor. In the colonial era, a number of nations used penal colonies to establish a presence at their more remote colonies, where they had difficulty attracting settlers. These colonies provided a mechanism for claiming land and punishing social malefactors. Prisoners might be transported, as it was known, for a lifetime in a penal colony or a set sentence. Australia famously included a number of penal colonies.

When a nation founds a penal colony, it sends prisoners with overseers qualified to supervise them, along with some basic supplies to establish the colony. The government typically provides support until the colony can start to sustain itself. Prisoners may farm, mine, fish, and engage in other activities. Initially they perform tasks to support the colony like building housing and growing food. Over time, they may produce goods for sale to the outside community to turn the penal colony into a profitable venture.


Historically, positions as wardens were often coveted, as the warden could turn a profit from the colony if he ran it well. Guards and other support staff tended to come from the lower classes and sometimes viewed the penal colony as a chance at getting ahead in society. Guards might serve for a set time in exchange for land after their service or other benefits that they could use to establish new lives. In addition to being used in Australia, penal colonies were also part of life in China and Russia during parts of the 20th century under repressive governments that used them to house political dissidents and other undesirable members of society. Prisoners were also transported to the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Penal colonies provide a free source of labor to the government, along with a threat the government may use to maintain social order. Wrongdoers might find the threat of transport a significant deterrent to many crimes. Penal colonies also resolved the expense associated with keeping prisoners and maintaining reasonably safe prison conditions. Instead of housing and feeding prisoners, the government could require prisoners to take care of their own needs in a penal colony.

Internationally, the use of penal colonies is largely frowned upon. Some critics believe they are an example of slave labor, as inmates cannot opt out of work and may be forced to work in harsh conditions. Working prisons and facilities where prisoners can choose to work in the community or in the prison itself are operated on a slightly different model, as prisoners may be able to apply for specific work assignments and the conditions are more humane.


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