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How Much Do Prison Jobs Pay: Prison Wages, Opportunities, and Controversies

The United States prison system provides various jobs and vocational programs for inmates. Prison labor enables facilities to be self-sufficient, providing necessary services while also keeping inmates constructively occupied. However, the compensation and working conditions associated with prison jobs remain controversial. This article will examine the types of jobs available in prisons, the pay scale, debates surrounding prison labor practices, and provide information on wages and opportunities in various states.

Types of Jobs Available to Inmates

There is a wide range of prison jobs tailored to varying security levels and skill sets. Here are some of the most common occupations:

Food Service

Most prisons have large industrial kitchens that require cooks, bakers, dishwashers, servers, and general food prep workers. Food service provides a large number of job opportunities even for unskilled inmates.

Janitorial and Maintenance

Every prison facility needs janitors, groundskeepers, painters, plumbers, and general maintenance workers. These jobs help keep the facilities clean and operational.

Manufacturing and Processing

Prison factories, farms, and processing plants mass produce a variety of consumer goods, agricultural products, and materials for government use. Manufacturing jobs can include sewing, woodworking, metal work, printing, and assembly line tasks.

Public Works

Some minimum security prison camps provide work crews for municipalities, government agencies, and communities. Inmates perform road work, landscaping, maintenance, and assist with public projects and disaster relief.

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Peer Support

Inmates can apply to become peer tutors, clerks, library aids, recreation assistants, and provide other administrative support services within the prison system. These jobs help facilitate prison operations.

Personal Services

Barbers, laundry workers, and shoe repairmen provide basic services to fellow inmates within the prison population.

Prison Wages, Hours, Deductions

While prison jobs provide productivity and purpose, the wages paid are extremely low compared to labor standards outside prison walls. There are also significant deductions. Here is an overview of typical prison labor compensation:

  • Wages: Hourly wages range from $0.14 to $1.41 per hour depending on the state, job type, skills, and performance. Monthly wages can range from $20 to $200 based on the allowed work hours. Some states do not pay wages at all for prison labor.
  • Hours: Most prison jobs require 30-40 hours per week of work. Some states have limits in place on how many hours inmates can work. Overtime is generally not allowed.
  • Deductions: While wages seem very low, most inmates do not receive their full pay. Significant deductions are taken out for taxes, room and board, family support, and victim restitution funds. Deductions can take up to 80% of gross pay.
  • Tips: Inmates are not allowed to receive any tips or gratuities for their work. Additional pay above the prison wage rate is prohibited.
  • Expenses: Work uniforms, equipment, transportation, and hygiene items required for prison jobs are deducted from wages. Inmates have to pay for any job-related costs.

State Differences in Prison Wages and Opportunities

Prison wages, work opportunities, and regulations can vary widely between different state prison systems. Here are some examples of monthly earnings based on reported hourly wages and maximum hours:

StateWageAllowed HoursPotential Monthly Earnings
Louisiana$0.04 to $0.2080$12.80 to $64
Georgia$0 to $0.5560$0 to $132
California$0.08 to $0.37N/AN/A
Colorado$0.92 to $4.61120$110.40 to $553.20
New York$0.10 to $1.1442$4.20 to $47.88

The table shows the range of wages and work opportunities across different prison systems. Some states do not pay inmates at all, while others can provide over $500 per month for diligent and skilled workers. However, maximum hours allowed can prevent inmates from earning full-time pay in many cases.

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Controversies and Criticisms of Prison Labor Practices

While prison labor provides benefits to society and the penal system, numerous controversies persist over the practice:

  • Unfair Wages: Prison wages are well below federal and state minimum wage standards, leading to criticism over unfair pay. Inmates are the only labor group that can be paid below minimum wage.
  • Dangerous Conditions: Some prisons jobs involve exposure to unsafe machinery, chemicals, agricultural hazards, and other risks. Injuries occur at higher rates than normal jobs.
  • Effect on Outside Economy: The cheap prison labor workforce is said to take away jobs from law-abiding citizens and unfairly competes with small businesses that can’t match prison wages.
  • Justifications for Low Wages: Prison advocates argue that room, board, and skill building provided justify substandard wages. However, critics say deductions for expenses out of inmate pay constitutes an unfair economic system.
  • Impact on Minorities: Because minorities make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population, critics argue they are more likely to be exploited for cheap labor.
  • Limited Skills Training: While prisons claim to provide vocational skills, critics allege the repetitive low-skilled jobs do little to increase future employability and reduce recidivism.

There are persuasive arguments on both sides of the issue. Prison labor systems vary greatly between states, correctional facilities, and specific programs in place. There are promising models that provide marketable skills and decent wages, however many opportunities for reform remain.

Table of Notable Crimes and Convictions

NameDescription of CrimeYearConviction Outcome
Bernie MadoffOperated massive Ponzi investment scheme defrauding clients of over $64 billion2008150 year prison sentence
Jeffrey SkillingFormer Enron executive convicted of fraud and conspiracy200624 year prison sentence
Aldrich AmesCIA officer convicted of spying for Russia1994Life in prison sentence
Lee Harvey OswaldAssassinated President John F. Kennedy1963Murdered two days after crime
Ted Kaczynski‘Unabomber’ killed 3 and maimed 23 in nationwide bombings1996Life in prison sentence
John Walker LindhAmerican captured fighting for Taliban after 9/11200220 year prison sentence
Julius and Ethel RosenbergConvicted of conspiracy to commit espionage for Russia1953Executed in electric chair

“Prison can be a tough and violent place, but showing a willingness to work hard can help earn respect and avoid trouble.”

Frequently Asked Questions About Prison Jobs

What are the most common prison jobs?

The most common prison jobs include food service, janitorial, manufacturing, public works/community service, peer support roles, and personal services like barbers and laundry. Available jobs depend on the prison’s needs and inmate skills.

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What do inmate workers produce?

Prison factories and farms produce a wide range of goods such as furniture, clothing, bedding, license plates, government signs, office supplies, agricultural crops, and processed foods. Inmates also refurbish computers, recycle electronics, and provide services for governments.

Do inmates keep any of the money they earn?

While wages seem very low, inmates actually see a fraction of their gross pay after deductions for taxes, fees, victim funds, child support, and other expenses mandated by the court of prison system. Actual take home pay can be as little as 20% of wages.

What are the benefits of prison labor?

Proponents argue it provides skills training, cuts recidivism by providing a work ethic and purpose, offsets cost of incarceration, and contributes valuable goods and services to the public.

Are prisoners required to work while incarcerated?

Inmates are often required to work unless they pose security risks or have medical conditions preventing employment. Refusing to work can lead to loss of privileges and reduced time off for good behavior. However, forced labor without pay violates constitutional rights.


Prison jobs provide productive opportunities for inmates but remain controversial due to unfair compensation, labor conditions, and criticisms of exploitation. Wages vary greatly by state but are generally well below minimum wage.

While prisons claim labor teaches marketable skills, the reality of boring repetitive work with little training often fails to meet those goals. However, inmates able to obtain vocational training in higher skilled trades can benefit. More oversight and reform is needed to ensure prison labor systems match the rhetoric of providing rehabilitation, training, and helping inmates integrate back into society.

Prison Inside Team

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About us

We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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