Imagine a society (medieval, but that isn't very important here) that has approved slavery. You can trade, buy, sell and hire slaves at will in the market.


Slaves are usually "harvested" from indigenous villages that are attacked and conquered by the kingdom. Also, but not so common, people can sell their sons or even themselves to be slaves, usually if they are extremely poor (at least their new owners will usually take care of them, otherwise they will lose money). Another way to get slaves is during a war, war prisoners sometimes aren't returned to their homes after a war and they become slaves of the victorious empire, even this may happen with civilians in war zones.

The idea: Sell prisoners.

The thing that I want to add is the possibility of buying prisoners as slaves. This will have 2 main advantages:

  • The government will spend less money on prisons.
  • The slave market will have cheaper prices due a new and constant flow of slaves to the market (wars and indigenous villages aren't so common).

And finally, it may be a bit interesting.

It's quite understandable and obvious that slaves can be released. An owner can at will give freedom to its slaves, he just needs to sign a little contract that states the freedom of the person. Sometimes slaves perform deals with they masters if they work hard and without causing problems during X years they get freedom.

The problem

If you can buy prisoners as slaves and you can get them free at will, you can, as a rich person, member of a rich family, assassins/thief guild, etc, perform a criminal activity, be jailed, be bought by a friend, and finally be released by him.

Basically, the law won't be any problem for rich or illegal organizations.

How can I prevent this problem but allow the sale of prisoners?

Even not allowing slaves to be set free by their masters it still being the same. You can be bought by a friend, family or guild and keep your life as normal. I don't want that.

Not much necessary to know

In this world, there is magic, some magic (usually healing magic) need life forces of victims to be performed. I want to let mages buy cheap prisoners and use them as life-force batteries to power they healing services in rich hospitals. I was thinking in prisoners because they are actually criminals, not just "slaved persons", so mages wouldn't annoy about kill them to fuel their magic, also, they may be cheaper.

A solution could be to not buy the prisoner, just its life-force. A mage visits a prison, ask for some life-force, pay the price, guards transfer the prisoner to a special room, and there part of its life is taken away from him to a jar by the mage. Simple, easy and effective. But I don't like much the idea. I would like the idea of buy prisoners as assets, not just their life essence.

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    $\begingroup$ This used to happen, at some times in some places; sell them across the border (to barbarians), or sell them in a faraway (and dirt-poor) province. As for the problem as stated, that rich people and their goons will go free, this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of pre-modern justice. The entire point was to compel the criminal to pay the weregeld, the price of the victim. In the Antiquity and the Middle Ages there was no concept of prison as punishment; the punishment was either a fine, or else death. Enslavement was a form of capital punishment. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 23, 2018 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ So the problem is that slavery reduces to a fine (the price of buying the slave). Is that necessarily a problem? $\endgroup$
    – Thomas
    Oct 23, 2018 at 23:54
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    $\begingroup$ "Basically, the law won't be any problem for rich or illegal organizations" - historically, this has been a pretty common state of affairs. $\endgroup$ Oct 24, 2018 at 9:56
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    $\begingroup$ This is already done in the United States and is completely legal. Yes, slavery is legal in the United States of America under certain conditions, and is very heavily utilized by many companies. $\endgroup$
    – forest
    Oct 24, 2018 at 10:22
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    $\begingroup$ A law that allows rich people to get away with things that poor people can't? Such a thing has never happened in the history of the world and would break the suspension of disbelief. The law, in its majestic equality,... $\endgroup$
    – DMPalmer
    Oct 24, 2018 at 15:39

13 Answers 13


Make owners responsible for their slaves. This is a replacement for imprisonment. So there would be a sentence length. Using their lifeforce reduces the sentence length. But otherwise, their period of enslavement is determined by the original judging entity. Purchasers cannot reduce it arbitrarily. Further, because they are responsible for crimes that their slaves may commit, this means that if a slave commits another crime, the purchaser also goes to jail. Eventually the slave runs out of friends and family members.

This allows for slaves to be bought for lifeforce. This reduces their sentence. The healers administrate that part. Slaves may also be bought for labor. But then the owner becomes responsible for the slave. Hostile owners will hire guards, etc. Friendly owners might try to do this, but then they are subject to arrest when they fail to restrict their slave.

You can further reinforce this with some arbitrary restrictions. For example, slaves may not be allowed outside on their own after dark. Break that and the slave goes back to jail for resale. The owner loses whatever investment was made to free the slave.

Other potential rules:

  • Slaves can't talk to free women, even their mothers, sisters, and daughters.
  • Slaves can't speak back to free people.
  • Slaves can't strike free people.
  • Slaves may not be allowed to drink alcohol.
  • Slaves may not be allowed to drink from free fountains.

It used to be commonplace

The question show a misconception about pre-modern societies. They were not modern societies in which people dressed funny and had a handful of unusual laws; they were profoundly alien. As it is said, the past is a foreign country.

  • First of all, in pre-modern societies they had no concept of imprisonment as a form of punishment. Misdeeds were of only two kinds: most of them incurred some sort of fine, or price, to be paid; the others called for the capital punishment.

    What exactly qualified for capital punishment varied from place to place and from time to time. Murder was a capital crime in the classical world, but not so much in the early Germanic Middle Ages, where it called for payment of a man-price, or weregild. On the other hand, all pre-Renaissance penal codes were very harsh on adultery and other forms of domestic treason.

  • Enslavement was a form of capital punishment.

    The Romans called it capitis deminutio maxima, the greatest diminishment of the head. In early Rome, it involved selling the convict across the border, trans Tiberim, on the other side of the river Tiber. In more civilized times, it involved usually making the convict a slave of their punishment, servus poenae, and selling them to work in a mine, damnatio ad metalla.

    The point is that it was a capital punishment. (Capital from caput, head.) The person was legally dead. Their wealth was either confiscated or passed to their heirs. They could not come back from the dead, and enslavement was assimilated with death, servitus morti adsimulatur.

    Even if they were miraculously set free (which was usually not possible, because they were branded before being sold, and branded slaves could not be manumitted), they had no family, no relations. Wait, a modern person will say, but this was a legal fiction; of course their natural family would recognize them. Nope, not so; the past is a foreign country, and the Romans tooks family very seriously, and would never welcome an unrelated former convict.

  • Were the Romans the only one to practice penal slavery?

    No, not at all.

    In early medieval Hungary,

    Freemen could be sold into slavery for numerous crimes. Any common woman (plebeia) caught in adultery would be sold 'without the hope of freedom' (sine spe libertatis), and the same fate awaited a common man caught in the same sin.

    (Cameron Sutt, Slavery in Árpád-era Hungary in a Comparative Context, BRILL, 2015, ISBN 9789004301580)

    In some western European countries, early Germanic penal codes had similar provisions.

    In medieval China they sold the convicts far away, in the poor provinces at the margins of the empire.

    The early modern English sold them across the ocean, in America.

  • But what about the rich? And their goons?

    The rich were rich anyway. The rules did not apply to them. A rich Roman (or a rich Chinese) could never be enslaved or God forbid! executed; the worst of the worst was exile (which implied loss of property) but this was exceedingly rare, the usual maximum punishment for a rich criminal being relegation (sort of like exile, but without complete loss of property).

    And their goons? Well, rich people did not stay rich by spending money on slaves which they intended to manumit immediately, not to mention that it would have been against social decorum to do that; and in a pre-modern society, loss of face (or, as they called in Europe, dishonour) was to be avoided at all costs.

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    $\begingroup$ The Orients used to deal in the slave trade quite a bit. In Japan, many/most of the geisha houses were made up entirely of women who where sold as children to pay off a family debt. The madame/mama-san was almost always one of these geishas who had either saved up enough money to buy their own contract or were lucky enough to earn the right to inherit the house when the previous mama-san died or retired. This form of slavery was so well honored that previous slaves enslaved others, as odd as that sounds to Westerners/modern society. $\endgroup$ Oct 23, 2018 at 21:24
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    $\begingroup$ Of course, prisons did exist - but weren't used the way they are now. For the most part, they were for short-term punishment (a few days in prison, oubliette...), holding before trial (if you had a right to be tried in the first place, i.e. usually "rich") and holding hostages (e.g. the cousin of the king next doors, to ensure he's not going to declare war on you or to force him to sue for peace). Prisons ranged all the way from "a hole in the ground and a bit of bread every day if you're lucky" to "luxurious hotel for aristocrats". $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Oct 25, 2018 at 13:24
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure how prevalent it was, but there are example of aristocrats and other prominent figures being asked kindly to drink poison and die quietly in Roman and Greek times. On an unrelated note, it's also interesting to note that the 13th Amdt to the US Constitution doesn't abolish slavery as a punishment for one's crimes, so that mentality isn't only found in faraway lands a long long time ago. $\endgroup$ Oct 26, 2018 at 10:41
  • $\begingroup$ @computercarguy Not it doesn't... Look up William Ellison. AN interesting example would be the first slave owner in the colonies, the man who introduced thru precedent slavery, a former indentured servant Anthony Johnson who thru lying/trickery caused his former indentured servant Castro to become the first legal slave in the colonies $\endgroup$
    – Questor
    Jul 13 at 18:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Questor, I said "modern society", which would typically be considered sometime after 1920 or even 1950, not the late 1700's to early 1800's. studylecturenotes.com/… $\endgroup$ Jul 13 at 22:19

All prisoners are property of the Government during their sentence. The "owners" don't buy them, just hire them for long periods.

In a medieval society, because sentences need to be really harsh, you need to use those slaves only for the most dangerous jobs, like rowing ships, working in mines, etc. If not, people will commit crimes and then ran away during their slavery time, because the Government has almost no security forces and just by traveling 100 km nobody knows you.

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    $\begingroup$ Although not exactly the same a similar principle is that in England all land technically belongs to the Crown, people who "own" land or houses have a freehold on the estate. $\endgroup$
    – Sarriesfan
    Oct 23, 2018 at 19:58
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    $\begingroup$ Sounds like "Slavery-as-a-service". :P $\endgroup$ Oct 23, 2018 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ This is how the US currently does prison labor. $\endgroup$
    – Rick
    Oct 25, 2018 at 11:56
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    $\begingroup$ When Britain was using Australia as a penal colony, men were auctioned right at the dock. Transport to Australia by sailing ship was about 5 months. $\endgroup$ Nov 1, 2018 at 13:29

Face Branding

Just brand each prisoner's face so no one ever gets the wrong idea about them being free. Funny enough, this was used for the purpose of slaves in our own history. I want to point out one group specifically which were branded by the Roman Catholic church.

In the 16th century, German Anabaptists were branded with a cross on their foreheads for refusing to recant their faith and join the Roman Catholic church.

For some reason if your cringing at the thought, branding another place that is clearly visible would be possible. Think hands, neck, ankles.

Edit: It was pointed out in the comments I should put in a bit more detail, so I will answer your question directly.

Basically, the law won't be any problem for rich or illegal organizations. How can I prevent this problem but allow the sale of prisoners?

We cannot prevent all criminals from gaining back their old life but we can prevent them from rebuilding anything public facing. Not to mention, ostracizing people is a strong punishment in itself.

The easiest way to ostracize someone is to make them different from everyone else in a bad way. In the Southern states of the USA there were slaves, but every one had a single feature that made them different; a black skin color. Just by looking at a person in the south you could guess who was or was not a slave. This is a powerful force as all of society is enforcing your slavery.

Now you need the same solution, but applicable to any person without undue cost. This requires a clear marking that no one can ignore, removing body parts and permanent disfiguration are the easiest solutions. removing body parts may damage their ability to contribute so that is out. disfiguration only works on easily seen parts of the body and hiding your whole face is hard in society.

Siberian convict

This man was a Siberian convict of Russia. Without even knowing that, having those marks on his face clearly sets him apart from most people. He will never get away from the past even if he was set free.

Iran amputation machine

If you would rather go with the amputation method Iran recently made a machine that does it for you. Losing a finger for your crime is a clear disfiguration for the purpose of this question.

  • $\begingroup$ You should expand on how this prevents the problem the OP is worried about, I can see it but it is not explicit. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Oct 24, 2018 at 4:09

Basically, the law won't be any problem for rich or illegal organizations.

How can I prevent this problem but allow the sale of prisoners?

I think you could solve or mitigate this problem by thinking over who owns a newly-convicted prisoner by default.

In cases where it's the government of the day, they may have some good reason to not sell a criminal kingpin out of jail. There are some parallels between this and modern parole.

On the other hand, you could set up the system so that, for example, the surviving family of a murder victim decides if, and at what price, the convicted murderer can be "bailed out" of jail and into slavery. There may still be problems of duress, but at least they might be interesting ones.

On the final hand, "the law isn't a problem for the rich" isn't exactly unique to your situation.


There is no such thing as personal property

The kingdom is an absolutist monarchy, along the lines of Pharaonic Egypt, Imperial China, or Achaemenid Persia. The king 'owns' everything in the country. If you have money or power, then you can pay the God-king for his material favors, or they could be granted to you as a divine boon.

But, there is no concept of 'ownership' at all. Everything that is, belongs to the God-king; the best anyone else can hope for is the right of possession (which could of course be revoked by the king at any time).

In this way, slaves are the property of the king, as is everything; but right merchants, guilds, lords and sundry can pay the king for the right to tell these slaves what to do.


Just back off the concept that buyers can always buy a prisoner. If your rich guy commits a crime, he becomes a prisoner that cannot be bought.

Or you put restrictions on who can buy him; nobody that knows him. Or the government authorizes certain hard labor camps (mining, farming, gladiators) to buy such prisoners, and nobody else. And confiscate all his property and money while you are at it, so even if some friend could by subterfuge find a way to buy him out of slavery, the rich guy isn't rich anymore and cannot pay his friend back, because he has nothing.

There are many ways out of your dilemma, just do not assume the rules have to be simple or fair. You are allowing legal slavery for god's sake.


Just like in real life, you could use parole officers to ensure the prisoners are being subjected to the punishments your government believes they should receive. Although real-life parole officers are more focused on the prisoner's background and activities outside of prison, your parole officers will be more focused on the buyer.

Before making the purchase, the buyer must agree to uphold whatever punishments/type of work/treatment that the prisoner should receive, and how long they will remain a prisoner(assuming it isn't for life). Upon buying a prisoner destined for slavery, the buyer must register themselves(if it's their first time) and the prisoner with the nearest parole officer/parole office. These officers will typically be part of your government's normal police/military jurisdictions.

After registering, the buyer will be subjected to periodic, and ideally random, inspections of the prisoner-turned-slave's working conditions. If the parole officer is suspicious that the buyer is not adhering to the conditions they agreed to before the purchase, the officer can issue warnings and set up more thorough, and again random, investigations.

Should the buyer be found beyond a reasonable doubt to be treating the slaves better/worse than they should, then the slave may be taken away from the buyer without compensation. Repeated or particularly egregious offenses, such as killing, maiming, or releasing them, could result in a complete ban from further purchases.


Assign slaves to buyers randomly.

If your friend is sent to jail then you can buy all means request a slave. And the slave will be any one of the hundred prisoners taken in the last year or a slave from other means, maybe even one being sold back to the government. Unless you want to buy all of the slaves on the market you are pretty much out of luck.

If they did buy their freedom like a lottery then they will be punished financially and the government will be among those reaping the benefits of the mass slave buying.

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    $\begingroup$ Wouldn't the buyer want to see the slave before paying for him? $\endgroup$
    – Masclins
    Oct 24, 2018 at 10:45

A combination of two practices:

Exponential purchase price increases for repeat offenders


Enslavement of ex-owners of repeat offenders who must be purchsed before their ex-slaves can be purchased


John breaks the law and is imprisoned. John's friend/family/illegal-organization-colleague, Joe, buys John and lets John loose. John breaks the law again and is imprisoned. Joe is also imprisoned as the owner of a repeat offender, and so cannot buy John again as Joe is himself imprisoned. Also, John cannot be purchased until Joe has already been purchased. Jack is a friend/family/illegal-organization-colleague of Joe, and buys Joe and turns him loose. Now Joe has the opportunity to buy John, but John's purchase price has doubled as a repeat offender. He does so, anyway, though with much more hesitation this time, for obvious reasons. John breaks the law again, is imprisoned again. Joe is imprisoned as his owner, again. And Jack is also imprisoned as the owner of repeat offender Joe. This time Johns purchase price is 4 times what it was the first time, Joe's is double what it was the first time, and Jack must be purchased before Joe can be, and Joe must be purchased before John can be. So John's "effective" price is now 7 times what it was originally, not just 4 times.

In very short order, even super rich families and organizations will stop attempting to purchase John for the purpose of setting him free. And this setup would act to deliberately target and dismantle organized crime, specifically.


You can ask them to serve you for an amount of time base on their crime level. For example, if they are killers, so if the rich guy wants to buy them, they must serve him 5 years before released and cannot be sold in that time.


The rich are never enslaved for ordinary crimes. They just pay the fine. Slavery is only a way to raise money to pay back the damage you did to society.

In some cases you may make the punishment loss of all your worldly goods AND being sold into slavery. The king may do this for treason. The church for heresy.

You need to decide if there is a limit. E.g. is it a new life, and you will not ever be free again, or is it more like an indentured servant? If it's for the rest of your life, then face marking as mentioned in other answers is the way to go. Otherwise, if it's only for a set period of time, you may brand them with something that has the last year of their servitude. This prevents owners from keeping them past their release date. It also marks them as escaped slaves if they are seen in the wrong place with a future year stamp. And it may eliminate repeat offenders: If you have a previous conviction (brand) then you are just executed, or sent to a short term terminal mine. (See how the Spanish treated the natives of Peru mining silver. 1493 book again.)

(In the U.S. they originally tried bringing poor people from England to work as indentured servants, but they died too fast from malaria. Many Africans have partial immunity to malaria. There was good reason to put those plantation mansions on top of a hill, away from the swamps with wide open yards beside them. See 1493, Uncovering the World Columbus Created.)




One simple change can fix this; make it illegal to declare a slave 'free'. If a master tries to set a slave free, the slave becomes property of the government, which then sells them to the highest bidder. The master might even face legal charges punishable with fines, mandatory "psyche evaluation", or maybe even outright enslavement for 'negligence' and 'failure to ensure his slaves know their place'.


The rich are already really good at wiggling out of punishments in our own society: this just offers another way to do it.


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