How hard is hard labor?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 6 2006 5:54 PM

How Hard Is Hard Labor?

Do military troublemakers have to break rocks?

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer's free daily podcast on iTunes.

Sgt. Santos A. Cardona, a dog-handler in Abu Ghraib prison, received a sentence of 90 days' hard labor on Friday. How hard is hard labor?

It's not too bad. Cardona was sentenced to "hard labor without confinement," which means he'll get sent back to his company at Fort Bragg to work off his crime. The Manual for Courts-Martial (PDF) limits the duration of "hard labor" to a maximum of three months for any member of the armed forces, but it leaves the exact nature of the punishment to the company commander, who will have to decide what tasks the offender must undertake and for how many hours.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate


The commander can't inflict cruel or unusual punishment by assigning work that might constitute a safety or health hazard. (He might run his decision by the staff judge advocate to make sure it passes legal muster.) In practice, many sentences of hard labor without confinement entail doing lawn work or picking up garbage around the base.

Army regulations (PDF) offer a bit more guidance: Convicts should receive three meals per day, but you can feed them MREs "or similar substitutes" if you want. Hard labor without confinement should be performed in public view, it should "focus on punishment," and it "may include duty to induce fatigue." In other words, you don't have to make the convict work toward a useful goal. You can ask him to fill and then empty sandbags, for example.

Convicts who get sent to the brig can get hard labor lumped in with their sentence. In a detailed article from Army Lawyer, Joseph Berger describes the procedure in place at the Marine Corps' Camp Lejune correctional custody unit. Convicts spend 40 hours a week on hard labor, including "log drills"—or physical training exercises involving 18-foot-long telephone poles—and weekly stints at the "rock pile." That's right: The soldiers are forced to break big rocks into little rocks, which are then used in landscaping projects around the camp.

Soldiers can get something like hard labor even without a full trial. The military justice system gives commanders some leeway in assigning nonjudicial punishments for lesser offenses. They can sentence a soldier to "extra duties," for example, which ends up looking a bit like a sentence of hard labor without confinement. As a general rule, extra duties are supposed to be more productive than punitive, and they can't include ridiculous or degrading tasks. The Army states that you can't make a soldier on extra duties clean a barracks floor with a toothbrush, for example.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Kathleen Duignan of the National Institute of Military Justice, Eugene Fidell of Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell, and Beth Hillman of Rutgers University.


Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy

Even if You Don’t Like Batman, You Might Like Gotham

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059


Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

So, Apple Is Not Shuttering Beats, but the Streaming Service Will Probably Be Folded Into iTunes

  News & Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
Sept. 22 2014 4:06 PM No, Women’s Soccer Does Not Have a Domestic Violence Problem Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 5:45 PM The University of California Corrects “Injustice” by Making Its Rich Chancellors Even Richer
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.