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10.00  Heritage of Penal Labour: Rethinking Work in Tracing Historical Movements within and Beyond Prisons

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9:00, Lundi 6 Juin 2016 (30 minutes)

To contribute to a better understanding of the heritage of mobility related to labour, work and employment, this paper will focus on how mobile work had been employed historically. It pays attention to communities affected by work-related mobility in a particular context—prisons—and how memories about their movements are represented in the making of prisons into heritage. With a focus on prisons as a unique setting, it will argue, however, that a reflection on the ways in which labour has been arranged in prisons can inspire alternative thinking of modern subjects and their positioning in work mobility.  

Among others, historical prisons became recognized as “dark heritage” or “negative heritage” that accommodated collective memories of death and shame; they have attracted emergent scholarship and industrial interest around the globe over the past two decades. Memories of incarceration were often remembered and represented through nationalistic frames, with a focus on placing blame on the former regime. It is largely ignored, nevertheless, the way in which prisons—correctional institutions—are essentially built upon modern state’s power over one’s freedom of movement and labour. In the name of civilized punishment, inmates have been and are continuously made to work in and sometimes out of prisons across colonies. At numerous prison camps in times of war, prisoners of war contributed to all kinds of production, ranging from farming, mining, to construction work of buildings and infrastructure, just to name a few. The forced labour enacted in the name of punishment, nevertheless, has been largely normalized as a necessary process of “correction” that would turn rebellious prisoners into docile, productive workers in criminology. The arrangement of the forced labour involved cross-border travel of prisoners among cities or even countries under the imperial regime—such is the case of the Japanese rule in the Pacific Asia in the first half of twentieth century. For instance, the construction of the transportation network in Hokkaido and the development of the Mitsui Miike Coal mining towns both employed hundreds of thousands of prisoners recruited from the colonies.  

How were those movements of prisoners related to geographies of colonialism? How was mobility understood and deployed in the process of linking prisons with industrial development? With increasing defunct prisons being turned into heritage, how are movements across scales within and beyond prisons articulated in contemporary projects of heritagizing incarceration? Based on a study of prisons inherited from the Imperial Japan in East Asian cities, such as Taipei and Seoul, this paper will investigate the possibilities to liberate prisons from prevailing narratives. Instead, in discussing prisons as heritage of penal labour, it calls attention to the punitive dimension of “work” at and beyond prisons, and the way in which power over “mobility” becomes a critical element in the process of normalizing incarceration and control in everyday life.

Shu-Mei Huang


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