Sharyl Corrado – Punishment or Correction? The Contradictory Purposes of the Sakhalin Penal Colony


Event Dates: 13 – 16 September 2015
College Court Conference Centre
Knighton Road,
Leicester LE2 3UF

The Carceral Archipelago: Transnational Circulations in Global Perspective, 1415-1960

Sharyl Corrado (Pepperdine University) – Punishment or Correction?  The Contradictory Purposes of the Sakhalin Penal Colony

When the first Russian convicts arrived on Sakhalin in the late 1850s, their purpose was to mine coal, serving the Russian state through manual labour on a wild, empty island off the coast of East Siberia.  There was little concern among Far Eastern Russian officials about either the punitive function or the correctional value of such work, as the need was for labourers in the remote coal mines. For the next decade, a handful of convicts worked alongside sailors extracting coal for the empire’s Pacific fleet, supporting themselves with their low wages.  It seemed an ideal arrangement:  a self-supporting colony in the burgeoning Pacific; convicts rehabilitated through productive labour while serving the Russian state.  Concerns began arising, however, once Sakhalin became an official site of penal servitude in 1869 and regular transportation began in 1875.  The “rational organization of convict labor” envisioned by prison reform advocates consisted in a humane, efficient system in which convicts were rehabilitated through labour and the promise of freedom to begin their lives anew.  Yet numerous issues plagued the penal colony in an era of prison reform and modernization.  Why should murderers be granted employment and land while peasants at home struggled?  Could a private mining company be entrusted with the oversight of the colony’s penal regime? Was the Main Prison Administration, established in 1879, capable of overseeing the growing number of former convicts sentenced to settle on the island?  Was freedom to clear land and establish homesteads a reward or a punishment?  While Siberian exile had existed in Russia for centuries, such debates illustrate the complexity of implementing a penal settlement in an era of modern sensibilities.  Ultimately failing to profit from the island’s coal or to rehabilitate its criminals, the penal colony was abolished in 1905.  Its reputation haunts the island even today.



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