How Hard Is Hard Labor?

Do military troublemakers have to break rocks?

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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.

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.

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