For some reason, society seems to have this general belief that people who are in prison are lazy and don’t want to work. Maybe this myth is perpetuated by movies and TV shows, but I honestly have no idea where this idea comes from.
Some people think that those who commit a crime or have an addiction want to avoid work and not contribute to society, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The vast majority of people who are locked up are being punished for a mistake they made or because of drug laws that criminalize personal choices.
Most people in prison are not career criminals. Instead, they are regular, everyday people who tend to have mental health issues or problems with addiction.
So, the question for this blog post is: can you work in prison? The answer is absolutely yes. Not only can you work in prison, but most facilities require that you have a job or go to school.
This blog post will cover:
Popular culture has influenced public perception of what it’s like to be in prison. It seems the belief is that prison is either a vacation resort for white collar criminals or a violent thunderdome where only the strong survive.
No matter which facility you are incarcerated in, it’s NOT a vacation. Unfortunately, there are some facilities with harsh living conditions that are extremely violent. But, many prisons are large campuses that have their own society behind the barbed wire fences.
Prisoners work, go to school, enjoy recreational activities, and have friends, just like in the free world. Of course, it’s a controlled society where the inhabitants have zero freedom, so there are huge differences.
Most prisoners want to work. If you have completed your education, the majority of prisons require you to have a job. Nothing makes time crawl more slowly than having nothing to do, and if you don’t have anyone sending you money, then a job is essential because it is the only way to earn some cash so you can call friends and family or buy things from the commissary.
Prisons wouldn’t be able to function if it weren’t for the inmates. They work in food service, building maintenance, ground maintenance (mowing and snow removal), janitorial service, and housekeeping. Inmates also have jobs at the commissary, and work as clerks in administration, intake, recreation, and the medical unit. Prisoners have jobs in every part of the prison, with the exception of the segregated housing unit.
When I was in prison, I worked in the commissary, which was basically like working in a grocery store. When inmates would place orders, I would grab their items off the shelves and then ring them up at the register. This was a highly-coveted position because it was the best paying job on camp. Because I had access to the inventory, I had to be strip searched every time I left work.
I should also mention that most prisons have some kind of work release program that allows prisoners to leave the prison grounds and work at local businesses or volunteer organizations. Sometimes, they work for state agencies like the department of transportation, so you will see them removing trash or weed-eating on the side of highways.
As I said earlier, prisons couldn’t function if the inmates didn’t have jobs. It is the modern day version of slave labor. For example, a job in food service at the Missouri prison where I was incarcerated required you to work full-time, and you earned $8.50 per month. However, if you were promoted to a cook position, you could pull in $15 per month.
When I landed the job at the commissary, it was a big deal because it was the highest-paid job on camp. It started at $35 per month, and I got a raise of $2.50 per month until I maxed out at $75.
Prisoners in work release made the big bucks. Those who worked for the Department of Transportation made about $9 per day. If you had a CNA license, you could work at a local nursing home, making minimum wage. However, this was a very difficult job to get, and the waiting list was long.
One of the best jobs a prisoner can get is a library assistant or teacher’s aide. When you have a job in the library, it means you can control who gets what book, and that is a power position in prison. It also gives you access to a ton of reading material, which helps you pass the time.
Teacher’s aids were the ones I knew loved their jobs because it was something they worked hard for. Many of the prisoners I was locked up with didn’t complete their education. So, after they earned their GED behind bars, they could apply to be a teacher’s aide. Landing that job gave many prisoners a sense of accomplishment.
Working in a prison library or the education department means that you are contributing to prisoner rehabilitation, and that can be very satisfying.Unless they are in a supermax facility or on death row, most prisoners have a job or go to school. Not only does this help pass the time, but it allows inmates to make a little money. Yes, you can work in prison, and most of the time it is required. Are you surprised by how little money prisoners earn at their jobs? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Serious Mental Illness Prevalence in Jails and Prisons https://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/evidence-and-research/learn-more-about/3695 A Day In The Life of a Prison Librarian http://publiclibrariesonline.org/2017/10/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-prison-librarian/ Prison Labor is Modern Slavery https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/23/prisoner-speak-out-american-slave-labor-strike
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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