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Prison Labour: The Price of Prisons and the Lasting Effects of Incarceration


  • Archibong, Belinda

    (African Economic History Network)

  • Obikili, Nonso

    (African Economic History Network)


Institutions of justice, like prisons, can be used to serve economic and other extrajudicial interests, with lasting deleterious effects. We study the effects on incarceration when prisoners are used primarily as a source of labor using evidence from British colonial Nigeria. We digitized sixty-five years of archival records on prisons from 1920 to1995andprovidenewestimates on the value of prison labor and the effects of labor demand shocks on incarceration. We find that prison labor was economically valuable to the colonial regime, making up a significant share of colonial public works expenditure. Positive economic shocks increased incarceration rates over the colonial period. This result is reversed in the postcolonial period, where prison labor is not a notable feature of state public finance. We document a significant reduction in contemporary trustin legal institutions, like police, in areas with high historic exposure to colonial imprisonment. The resulting reduction in trust is specific to legal institutions today.

Suggested Citation

  • Archibong, Belinda & Obikili, Nonso, 2020. "Prison Labour: The Price of Prisons and the Lasting Effects of Incarceration," African Economic History Working Paper 52/2019, African Economic History Network.
  • Handle: RePEc:hhs:afekhi:2019_052

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    Cited by:

    1. Marie Christelle Mabeu & Roland Pongou, 2021. "The Interplay Between Colonial History and Postcolonial Institutions: Evidence from Cameroon," Working Papers 2111E Classification-D02,, University of Ottawa, Department of Economics.
    2. Zanella, Giulio, 2020. "Prison Work and Convict Rehabilitation," IZA Discussion Papers 13446, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
    3. Marazyan, Karine, 2022. "Documenting Inter-personal Conflicts in Senegal during the First Quarter the 20th Century using Dispute Registries from native courts," CEPREMAP Working Papers (Docweb) 2209, CEPREMAP.
    4. Okoye, Dozie, 2021. "Things fall apart? Missions, institutions, and interpersonal trust," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 148(C).
    5. Dozie & Roland Pongou, 2021. "Missions and Heterogeneous Social Change: Evidence from Border Discontinuities in the Emirates of Nigeria," Working Papers 2112E Classification-I20,, University of Ottawa, Department of Economics.

    More about this item


    Prison; Taxation; Convict Labor; Public Works; Economic Shocks; Trust;
    All these keywords.

    JEL classification:

    • H55 - Public Economics - - National Government Expenditures and Related Policies - - - Social Security and Public Pensions
    • J47 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Particular Labor Markets - - - Coercive Labor Markets
    • N37 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy - - - Africa; Oceania
    • O10 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Development - - - General
    • O43 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Growth and Aggregate Productivity - - - Institutions and Growth


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