Exploitation of Prison Labor in Colonial Nigeria

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This figure is a line graph titled, Prison Population in Colonial Nigeria, 1920 to 1959. The y-axis is labeled, daily average number in prison. It ranges from 6000 to 14000, increasing in increments of 2000. The x-axis represents year, ranging from 1920 to 1960, increasing in increments of 10. The line experiences fluctuations between 1920 and 1950 but stays in between the 6000 to 8000 range. After 1950, the line experiences a steep increase to 14000 by 1960.  The source line reads, Source: Researchers’ calculations using archival data on prisons.

In the colonial era, some European authorities viewed prisons in African colonies as reservoirs of inexpensive labor for public works projects. During periods when laborers were in short supply, colonial courts worked with prison officials and police to expand the supply of prison labor and help the colonial government achieve its fiscal objectives.

In Prison Labor: The Price of Prisons and the Lasting Effects of Incarceration (NBER Working Paper 31637), Belinda Archibong and Nonso Obikili examine the dynamics of the prison labor system in British colonial Nigeria from 1920 to 1959. The incarceration rate of more than 0.3 percent of the population in 1940 ranked Nigeria 15th out of 222 countries and jurisdictions.

Colonial legislation allowed unpaid prisoners who had committed minor transgressions to be deployed on public works projects such as road and railroad construction.

The researchers utilize archival records on prison populations, wages, public works expenditures, and revenue to estimate the value of prison labor. The annual average value was £313,742 and the peak was £1,532,634 in 1959. The average value was more than twice the average level of colonial government spending on public works projects. The researchers also compute the net value of prison labor from the government perspective by subtracting the costs of housing, feeding, and guarding the prisoners. The average is £31,674, with positive values in more than half of the sample years and particularly large values in the 1950s amid increased public works activity. The net value of prison labor averaged 5 percent of the colonial government’s public works budget but peaked at 42 percent.

Colonial legislation permitted punishment for even minor transgressions and enabled the state to exploit prisoners in public works projects such as road and railroad construction. Archival records show that officials openly acknowledged this practice. The majority of colonial convictions stemmed from minor offenses like tax defaults, commonly punished with fines. Prisoners serving six-month sentences, who comprised 76 percent of the sentenced population in the first two decades of the data sample, provided much of that labor.

To increase the supply of prison labor during periods of tight labor markets, officials increasingly prosecuted minor crimes and switched punishments from fines to incarceration, as legislation mandated that prisoners work without compensation. The researchers find a positive correlation between average annual wages and daily prison populations. Further evidence emerges from an analysis of shocks to the agricultural sector, which was the largest sector in the economy. Favorable shocks to agricultural production, such as good weather that expanded production or high global prices, heightened labor demand and increased wages. The data show that a 10 percent rise in the price of palm oil, a key agricultural export, was associated with a 5 percent increase in short-term incarceration.

In post-colonial times, incarceration and the use of prison labor declined. Discovery of oil in 1956 which reshaped the economy, diminished need for unskilled labor for public works projects, and increased protests from labor unions drove the decline. The average incarceration rate fell from 241 per 100,000 people in 1920–38 to 92 per 100,000 in 1971–95.

— Leonardo Vasquez