U.S. federal prisoners are required to have work assignments. These can be menial or higher level jobs depending on the prisoner’s skills and experience.

Inmate Work Assignments

All medically-able federal prisoners are required to have a prison job (officially called a “work assignment”) unless they are medically disabled, in which case Health Services can excuse them from institutional work assignments. The reason all inmates must have work assignments is two-fold: one, it reduces inmate idleness and two, federal prisons require a ready labor force in order to sustain operations.

When you go through Admission and Orientation (A&O) you will also be assessed for your experience and skills to find a job that is available and suitable for you. If you don’t secure a job prior to finishing with Admission and Orientation, your unit team will assign you a work detail.

There are basically three levels of inmate work assignments:

  1. Janitorial work: Plenty of prisoners sweep floors, scrub toilets, showers, and dishes, wipe tables, serve food, and take out the trash. In virtually every area of the prison, inmate labor handles janitorial duties.
  2. Skilled work: A step up from janitorial duties are those who engage in skilled work. This can include welding, operating fork lifts, teaching, and other jobs which require not only time, but effort and experience.
  3. Clerk positions: The final tier up the scale are the clerk positions. Clerks work for every major department and help essentially manage operations (e.g., supervise fellow prisoners, handle pay, troubleshoot when issues arise, and just generally do whatever the department requires). Clerk positions pay the most of any type of prison employment by far.

We often get asked if can you earn money in prison – the answer is yes, but it’s not much. Prisoners are paid according to one of three scales, each depending on the department in question. Most prisoners are paid according to the Inmate Performance Pay scale, which is as follows:

Grade 1: $0.40 per hour
Grade 2: $0.29 per hour
Grade 3: $0.17 per hour
Grade 4: $0.12 per hour
Maintenance Pay: $5.25 per month

Those who work for commissary are paid according to the Trust Fund scale:

Grade 1: $1.20 per hour
Grade 2: $0.90 per hour
Grade 3: $0.75 per hour
Grade 4: $0.55 per hour

The final scale is for those who work for UNICOR:

Grade 1: $1.15 per hour
Grade 2: $0.92 per hour
Grade 3: $0.69 per hour
Grade 4: $0.46 per hour
Grade 5: $0.23 per hour

In addition to the above pay scales, some prisoners, for example UNICOR workers and others, sometimes receive bonuses. Whereas these bonuses can be based on longevity and productivity for UNICOR workers, most other departments take remaining funds and split the bonuses amongst the workers, which can amount to a few extra dollars a month.

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Regardless of bonuses, most prisoners only make $10 to $20 per month, which is hardly enough to buy commissary items, call home, buy songs for their MP3 players or email home. This is why money from home, even a small amount, can substantially improve the life of a federal prisoner.

Finally, it should be noted that many prisons offer no-show jobs for those who have enough resources from home and don’t want to work. These jobs tend to pay between $0.12 and $5.25 per month and only require the prisoner to sign in at work and leave, if that.

These tend to be jobs with the Compound and Recreation Department work details since most federal prisons have too many prisoners assigned to these work details. Sometimes all that is required for these types of jobs is to sign a pay sheet once a month.

To sign up for a no-show job, start by asking around to figure out what jobs require the least involvement. After settling on a job, ask a friend to introduce you to the “Number One” (head clerk) at the work detail. Then ask the Number One how much it will cost to get you assigned. For the most part it should cost $5 to $10 to make this happen. The Number One will get his boss to sign a cop-out, which you will then bring to your counselor for them to enter into SENTRY (the BOP’s computer system).

To source a higher paying job, sometimes it can be helpful to personally speak to the guard over the work detail and express to him or her your desire to work for them and your work ethic. Emphasizing skills or experience in the arena is also a good idea.

You are not guaranteed to get a higher paying or higher level job right away – you may have to start in a lower level and climb the ladder. So don’t immediately discount the lower level jobs. Consider signing up for a job that has advancement possibilities. If you put in good, hard effort, and show your value and work ethic to your supervisor, your strong track record will come in handy should those higher level jobs become available.

Contact us for more information about inmate work assignments.

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