Allan Kent Powell
History Blazer, January 1995
The use of convict labor has been a well-established part of America’s penal institutions for centuries. Whether doing forced labor on one of the infamous “chain-gangs,” working to pick up litter along Utah’s highways, or serving as volunteer forest fire fighters in some of the West’s most deadly and destructive fires, prison inmates have performed a wide variety of services for the community. Their work has been praised, ignored, and sometimes criticized.
In Utah, the new state constitution drafted in 1895 made unlawful the contracting of convict labor and its use outside prison grounds except for public works. In 1909, thirteen years after Utah became a state, the legislature passed a law allowing the use of convict labor on public road work by prisoners whose terms were less than ten years.
Two years later the legislature removed the ten-year limit and added the incentive that efficient and well-behaved workers could reduce their sentences by 10 days for every 30 days worked. Prisoners seemed to appreciate this opportunity.
These laws coincided with a major road-building program in Utah, and Governor William Spry saw the unpaid work of prisoners as essential in making Utah’s road system second to none.
The first project on which Utah prisoners worked was a stretch of road between Willard, Box Elder County, on the north to Hot Springs, near the Davis County line, on the south. A five-acre camp surrounded by barbed wire was established. Each of the 52 convicts allowed to work on the project promised the warden that he would work hard and not try to escape. Still, guards were posted at regular intervals, probably as much to keep the curious citizens out as to keep the prisoners in. Four men did try to escape and one succeeded.
Convict labor on the Willard experiment amounted to 6,503 man-days worked. With wages at $2.25 a day for regular laborers, the state saved $14,631.75 by using the convicts.
Not all Utahns thought the use of convict labor a good idea. At a rally held in Liberty Park on July 2, 1911, more than 500 dissenters listened as speakers argued that the use of convict labor took potential jobs away from the unemployed. Responding to such criticism later, Governor Spry denied that the use of convict labor took jobs from other workers; rather, since the convicts received no wages, only a reduction in their sentences, their work was a bonus on top of the state funds already appropriated for road construction.
Convict labor was used to construct roads in Utah until after 1920 but ceased before the end of the 1920s. On one project, prisoners left a monument of thanks to Governor Simon Bamberger for allowing them to engage in road construction and reduce their sentences. The monument can still be seen just off Highway 191 near the Carbon-Duchesne county line.
Sources: The use of convict labor see Virgil Caleb Pierce, “Utah’s First Convict Labor Camp,” Utah Historical Quarterly 42 (summer 1974): 245–57.