By Christopher Zoukis

Recently a Prison Law Blog reader, whose father is preparing to serve time in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, inquired about what type of work assignments his father would have to engage in.  In an effort to better disseminate this type of information, we’ve decided to answer his question in article format.  This way the knowledge will become publicly available to those outside of prison.

Are All Federal Prisoners Required to Have an Institutional Work Assignment?

While most certainly the ire of many federal prison inmates, those who are medically able are required to work.  Medically able means they can physically and mentally engage in relatively menial tasks.  The bar is set low: if the federal prisoner can stand and serve food or bend over and pick up trash or push a broom, then he works.  If the prisoner is unable to engage in these simple tasks, they could be assigned to a job where they just sit all day and work (e.g., rolling plastic spoons and napkins together) or, if they are unable to even engage in these basic work-related tasks, they might be excused from a prison job altogether, but this is the exception to the rule and must be authorized through the prison’s health services department.

Types of Work Assignments

There are many types of work available in a federal prison.  Federal prison inmates can be assigned to the kitchen to cook, wash, or serve.  They can be assigned to a housing unit to sweep, mop, pick-up trash, wax floors, scrub showers, or issue cleaning supplies.  They could even be assigned to a prison maintenance work detail to replace broken water fountains or toilets, replace burned out light bulbs, paint rooms or hallways, or any other number of tasks required to keep the federal prison in working order.  Still, a federal prison inmate could be required to pick up trash around the prison for an hour a day, or even to merely sign their name on a pay roster once a month for such alleged work, without ever having to show up to actually work.  The long and short of it is that prisons are like small cities.  There are garbage men, cooks, grass cutters, dish washers, electricians, plumbers, and everything else that the city — or, in this case, the prison — requires to operate.

Pay for Prison Jobs

Pay for prison work is generally horrendous.  At the bottom end of the spectrum, federal prisoners could be paid as low as 12 cents per hour.  This is not significantly common, but more than 30 cents per hour is uncommon.  Generally speaking, most federal prisoners make between $15 and $30 per month.  Exceptions are present, but these are often for full-time work details which require significant effort and time.  While some prisoners can eventually earn upwards of $100 or more a month, this often takes years of full-time work to gain a job with such status and benefit, and few hold such positions.

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