Can You Work In Prison?

There are many different jobs for inmates to take up during their sentence in prison; from food prep to laundry, there are a lot of jobs across many different industries that inmates can perform. Working in prison is something that millions of prisoners do; either for the motivation of having some extra money in their commissary account, or just to stay busy, working in prison is quite common.

In this article we will touch on the following topics:

  • Working conditions for prisoners.
  • How much do prisoners get paid?
  • Do inmates get any privileges from working?
  • How do inmates get a job?
  • What do inmates do for work?

Working Conditions for Prisoners

In recent years, working conditions for prisoners has decreased to an unbearable level; a level that has even caused nationwide prison protests and hundreds of thousands of prisoners to go on strike. Many prisoners have come forward to describe their working conditions and treatment as “slave labor”.

The inhumane treatment of these prisoners took headlines in 2018. Prison staff began to go on strike in at least 17 states, causing a sudden upheaval of operations across prisons nationally.  As part of the strike, prisoners would not work or eat to being attention to their horrible conditions.

Their largest protest occurred on August 21th, 2018 and was scheduled to end on September 9th, 2018. These dates were purposely chosen to mark the anniversary of uprising at Attica correctional facility in New York. Working conditions for prisoners reached an all-time low in 2018.

In California, inmates were risking their life to fight against fires for only a mere $1.00 an hour. These are inmates who have little/no experience with firefighting being put up on the front lines.

Many people across the country saw this as slave labor and joined in on the fight for better, safer, working conditions for inmates.

In 2019, efforts have been made to improve conditions, first starting off by proposing an increase in wages and implanting strict duty descriptions for workers.

There is still outrage from 2018 however, people, both in prison and out, still feel as if the working conditions have not improved, some prisoners even quoted as saying their conditions have gotten worse. Working in prison does not pay well, but it does allow inmates to purchase goods they desire to have.

How Much do Prisoners get Paid?

The average hourly rate for an inmate working in prison was $1.41 an hour. It is important to note that this hourly average is on the high end of the spectrum and is only classified for “In-State Correctional Facilities”.

The hourly rate for “Regular Jobs” (Not in the Correctional Industry), only is 63 cents. These averages are on the high end of the spectrum from both categories, detailing the maximum an inmate could earn an hour.

The minimum an inmate could earn an hour for “In-State Correctional Facilities” falls to 33 cents, and “Regular jobs” hits an all-time low of a meme 14 cents.

The pay rate in prisons across the country, and across job markets is very vast and different. The hourly rates are one of the main contributions to why there has been so many protests in 2018 relating to prison working conditions. 2017 is when the data was released.

On one end of the spectrum a prisoner can earn $1.41 an hour, and on the low end the prisoner can only earn 14 cents an hour. Protestors blame that this difference in earnings is used to encourage prisoners to undertake dangerous tasks to earn more money (such as fighting California wildfires for $1.00 /hr.)

It has been cited that the demand for prison workers has decreased ever since 2017. This can be contributed to the poor working conditions, as well as the low pay. It is argued that his turn in 2017 was one of the starting actions of the riots in 2018.

Prisoners do not get paid well while working in prison, but they are earning money for themselves.

Do Inmates get any Privileges from Working?

Inmates that work for the correctional facility may be able to benefit from their employment in more ways than just earning money. Many inmates that show a strong work ethic and are able to follow orders and discipline may be able to reduce their sentence by displaying “good behavior”.

Showing good behavior in prison is very beneficial to an inmate as it makes it much easier to appease a parole board. Another privilege working inmates have is the ability to form relationships with fellow prisoners, as well as some of the institutions staff. These relationships can be critical down the line, whether the inmate is seeking out acquittances, or looking for recommendations, by working in prison, the inmate is able to display positive characteristic traits.

Select inmates are able to enhance their time behind bars by joining a “work release” program. This program allows inmates to live and work in a specific area within the prison, or in some cases, the community. Prisoners are very fond of this program for multiple reasons, the main one being a possible reduction of their sentence, but their likeness also reaches over to skills they learn while working.

The work release program helps inmates adjust to life outside of prison, it helps them re-establish ties and connections with their families or friends. The work release program is designed around correction, not punishment.

This program has proven to be successful, in 2016, a report released by the U.S Department of Justice showed that inmates who were part of this program showed a “dramatically less chance of reoffending”. In addition, the report also highlighted how much easier it was for the inmates to find work after their release.

The work release program is a significant privilege to be a part of – it can change an inmate’s life.

What do Inmates do for Work?

Inmates can hold a variety of positions while in prison. Inmates may seek out a job that aligns with their aspirations after they are done serving their time, or they may just look for a job that seems interesting. Whatever the motivation for choosing a job is, there are a lot of jobs to choose from. Here are the most common jobs for prisoners to take up while incarcerated:

  • Food Preparation and Cooking
  • Waste Management
  • Laundry/Sewing
  • Maintenance

Most prisons rely heavily on inmates to perform these jobs, mostly because of cost. It is more favorable to hire prisoners to do these tasks for pennies on the dollar than it is to hire an employee at minimum wage. Inmates however fill these spots regardless because they want to get paid, and it looks very good to have on your record.

Inmates may work outside of these industries too. Some low-level offenders in minimum-security prisons can obtain jobs such as data entry and landscaping. There is a variety of jobs for prisoners to choose from; some jobs require a new schedule or cell placement; some jobs even move inmates into community homes (through the work release program).

Overall, the job market for inmates is actually rather large and extensive, especially at larger correctional facilities. Nearly every prison in the United States allows prisoners to work.


As it relates to an inmate’s commissary account, can the inmate see who sent them money?

In most states that information is provided to the innate as soon as he/she receives the invoice that money has been added. In some states where that information is not mandatory or available, there is no way for the inmate to find that out unless the sender tells the inmate directly.

The overwhelming majority of correctional facilities make that information available to the inmates.

Can I send an amazon package to an inmate?

In some cases, yes. Amazon is an online vendor that sells a large variety of products, so to ensure that you can send a specific product to an inmate, it is a good idea to check with the correctional facilities’ policies on whatever it is you’re sending. But as far as sending an amazon package goes, it should be O.K as long as the packages go through FedEx or USPS (UPS), since they have specific procedures for delivering to prisons.

Can families send clothes to prisoners?

No! Unless it is an extraordinary circumstance, prisoners are not allowed to receive any form of clothing. There are however rare cases in select prisons in the United States that allow prisoners to take ownership of clothing sent by friends of family, but those instances typically have prior confirmation and a specific reason.

Can inmates leave prison for a funeral?

Inmates may be warranted to leave the correctional facility temporarily on “compassionate grounds”. The prisoner cannot leave without a guard or officer with them however, and there are strict rules and regulations that must be followed when the inmate is conducting such visitations.


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