Administrators assign prisoners to specific bunks. They also assign people to work on specific prison jobs. With few exceptions—like being in transit, in segregation, in an A&O program, or medically unassigned—all people in federal prison have job assignments, also known as work details. Administrators assign prison jobs because they are convinced that excessive inmate idleness leads to disturbances within the prison.

Not all work details, or prison jobs, are equal. Some have the benefit of relatively high pay—less than $200 per month—but they come with the cost of more structure and responsibility. Others pay a prison “minimum wage,” which amounts to less than $10 per month. Benefits with those prison jobs may be more free time.

Prison wages may seem absurdly low. As in all societies, labor is a supply and demand issue, and with an abundance of prisoners, wages are bound to be low.

Although staff members supervise and reign over every aspect of the prison, prison labor keeps it running. Prisoners unload all the food that comes into the warehouse. They work in the warehouses to store the food. They prepare and cook the food. Another work detail is responsible for cleaning the kitchen and the dining room where the prisoners eat.

Prison workers maintain the facilities, too. They work as electricians, as plumbers, and as carpenters. Some work in factory jobs, others teach classes. Prisoners with administrative skills may work as clerks in any number of positions, or they may work in the education department as tutors. And hundreds of prisoners work on either landscaping crews or sanitation crews as orderlies.

There is no shortage of prison labor, but there is a shortage of prison jobs.

Prison Jobs – UNICOR Factory:

Many federal prisons operate factories that are part of the UNICOR corporation. UNICOR is a wholly owned government corporation, with annual sales in excess of $500-million. UNICOR uses prison labor to produce any number of products for government consumption. Some of the products UNICOR factories produce include mattresses, cables, military uniforms, mailbags for the postal services, sheets and towels for prisoners. Prison factories employ approximately 25 percent of the inmate labor force.

Generally, prisoners choose to work in prison factories because they have opportunities to earn higher pay—assuming they have a high school diploma or GED. Whereas most of the people in the general population work in jobs that pay less than 25-cents per hour, or an average of less than $20 per month, a long-tenured UNICOR worker that puts in overtime hours may earn in excess of $200 per month. One of the catches for working in UNICOR, however, is that all UNICOR workers must agree to pay 50-percent of their income toward any financial obligation they received as a part of sentencing.

Many people love their UNICOR jobs. They enjoy factory work because of the money they earn. Some also enjoy the challenges that come with doing something that they perceive as being meaningful.

Craig’s Story:

“Even if they took away the pay, I’d still work in the UNICOR factory,” Craig told members of our team. “I’m responsible for originating the paperwork and keeping track of all the shipping this factory does. I have a personal computer that is assigned to me, and I’ve been able to master many software programs. Even though I’ve been in prison for 10 years, I’m a whiz at working with complicated software programs. Because of my job I’ve picked up my typing speed to more than 100 words per minute. Most guys who have been in for 10 years don’t have any skills. The skills I’ve developed will help me when I get out. Besides that, I like it in UNICOR. When I’m at work, I feel like I’m not even in prison. Besides that, I earn about two-hundred dollars every month.”

Other prisoners aren’t so impressed with the UNICOR operation. James described his experience.

James’ Story:

“Man, screw UNICOR. I worked there for two years. I went because I needed the money. I have a college degree and figured a factory job would give me a challenge. What a disappointment. First of all, I had to wait about four months before I could even get a job. And I was on the fast track waiting list because I have a fine. My case manager made me sign some paper that said I agreed to give up half the wages I earned to pay for my fine. I was kind of pissed off about that, but I still thought it would be better than one of the other jobs. So I finally took a job in the payroll department.

“It’s all automated,” James continued. “The factory has a pretty sophisticated computer system that tracks all the labor and makes the appropriate journal entries to charge the expenses to the various jobs. The problem is that I work for these moron supervisors who can’t spell cat. They relied on me to do everything, and I didn’t even mind it. What really pissed me off about the whole thing was that although they expected me to work for them, if I was late coming back from lunch because a gate was locked, or if I wanted to participate in a class or something, the staff member would always give me hell—like I was asking for some kind of favor. They spend their time yacking on the phone all day, but they expect us worker bees to do everything. It wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t treat us terribly. Since they were takin’ half my pay anyway, I quit.”

Besides providing employment to the inmate population, the profits that UNICOR generates are plied back into the prison to fund educational and recreational programs. Although James didn’t like it, UNICOR played a significant role on almost every federal prison compound. It provides a payroll that may exceed $50,000 per month. That money goes directly into the inmate accounts. The inmates use that money to pay their fines, to purchase items from the commissary, to support their family members, to fuel the underground economy, and to save for their release from federal prison.

Commissary Prison Jobs:

Those who work in the prison commissary are also high earners. Under staff supervision, commissary workers are responsible for unloading, stacking, and keeping an inventory of all the items sold in the inmate store. The commissary is not like a grocery store, where prisoners browse through the lines with a cart and choose what they want. Instead, each prisoner is given a menu of items that are available in the commissary. The prisoner marks the quantity of items he wants on the list and passes the list through a bank teller-like window to a staff member. The staff member then gives the list to a commissary worker. The worker serves as a kind of runner, gathering all the items on the list and placing them in a basket. The staff member then rings the list up and charges the inmate’s account.

Although they are among the highest-paid jobs in the prison, commissary workers also are among the hardest working. Other jobs, including UNICOR, are overstaffed. Perhaps ten people in other prison jobs would be assigned to a duty that one person in the community would complete. Not so for commissary workers. Because staff members in the commissary do not have the room to featherbed their department with idle workers, those who work in the commissary are required to work rather hard throughout their shift. It’s a demanding job.

“I like working in the commissary for a few reasons,” Bob explained. “One is that I get paid well. Another is that I’m allowed to shop whenever I want.” Generally, prisoners are only allowed to shop in the commissary once or twice each week on specified days. Because Bob works in the commissary, he shops whenever he is on duty as a perquisite of the job. “I also like it because the busy schedule helps my time pass,” Bob added. He earns close to $200 per month.

Prison Jobs – Food Service:

There are scores of prison jobs available in the Food Service Department (my first prison job) which employs approximately 15 percent of the prison population. The highest paid jobs in Food Services usually go to those prisoners who work in the warehouse and the clerks who fill out the payroll forms. Those workers earn approximately $100 per month. Cooks are more or less the next level, and they earn somewhere between $80 and $100 per month. The rest of the workers usually earn anywhere from $20 to $70 per month, and may have jobs washing dishes, pots and pans, or performing cleaning services.

Some people enjoy working in Food Services because they eat well. The job may also provide a means of supplementing income by stealing food from the kitchen to sell in the housing units. Prisoners that steal accept a high risk. If staff members catch anyone stealing, they may charge the person with a high-severity disciplinary infraction. An active kitchen thief in a large prison may supplement his income by several hundred dollars each month.

Prisoners who do not want to steal complain of Food Services as being one of the least-desirable details. It’s a tough place to work because it’s busy. Perhaps 90 percent of the prisoner population eats in the chow hall every day, making it a high-stress area of the prison. It’s also noisy. Staff members try to speed through meal times, making the job feel demanding for some, with relatively little pay.

Central Maintenance Services (CMS):

This department includes the electric shop, plumbing shop, carpentry shop, paint shop, and other mechanical services. People assigned to these jobs maintain the prison’s facilities. Most prisons have apprenticeship programs for people that want to develop skills as craftsmen in these trades. When they are on the job, CMS workers earn anywhere between $20 and $80 per month, depending on the seniority of the worker—not on how much one knows, and not necessarily on how hard one works.

Education Prison Jobs:

The Education Department offers many jobs, including librarians, tutors, and clerks. Many inmates prefer these jobs because the Education Department gives them an opportunity to pass their time in a relatively quiet environment. Some derive a sense of meaning by helping others, or learning. Jobs in Education pay relatively poorly. Most workers earn fewer than $20 per month since education is not a high priority of the institution.

My friend, Shon Hopwood, used his time as a law library clerk in an extremely effective way. Those who’ve read his book, Law Man know the full story. While in federal prison, he became skilled in understanding the law. Shon’s skill led to his helping many people. Some got time cuts and left prison early. He wrote motions that led to changes in the law. And upon his release, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave him a scholarship to the University of Washington Law School. He became a clerk for federal judges, and then a professor at Georgetown Law School. Shon is an inspiration to anyone. He shows that regardless of what bad decisions a person has made in the past, it’s never too late to start sowing seeds for a better future. He prepared himself for success while serving time inside of a medium-security prison, alongside others that wasted time.

Andrew’s Story:

“My first job here was as a tutor in education,” Andrew told members of our team. “I hold a master’s degree in Romance Languages, and since I had to serve time in prison, I figured I’d get back into teaching. They called me a tutor, but no staff member ever did more than take roll in the classroom. I taught English as a Second Language and the Spanish GED program. The job required me to be there for seven hours each day and I wasn’t too crazy about that. I earned $14 per month for my work, and the guys really liked the way I taught. I got ticked off when I heard that the guy who was cleaning the bathrooms—who only had to be there for about two hours each day—was making $17 per month. When I heard about the discrepancy in pay, I realized how little the staff appreciated my work. It wasn’t really the money. Who really cares about three bucks? I just felt as if I were an idiot being there. Wanting a change, I sought a job as a unit orderly. I clean my little area and after that I’m free to do what I want. It takes me no more than an hour each day. I make more now than I did when I was responsible for teaching 100 students. I still help the other people, but I do it on my own time.”

Do-Nothing Prison Jobs:

When Andrew switched from the Education Department to a job as a unit orderly, he was switching to a do-nothing job. With the prison system so crowded, there are more prisoners than jobs available. As a result, people that have been in the prison for a long time hold on to the good jobs. There may be long waiting lists to move into high-paying or good positions.

Prisoners may define a “good” position differently. Andrew enjoyed having his time free, so he wanted a job where he would be left alone after completing his duties. As a unit orderly, Andrew had to sweep a staircase a few times each day. Other than that, he was free to stay in his housing unit working on his own projects.

Bob, who worked in the commissary, would not have considered such a job ideal. Bob enjoyed the structure of keeping busy. He said the job made his time pass easier. He also appreciated the higher earnings. Craig enjoyed the responsibilities that came with his UNICOR position. Each prisoner can work to maneuver his way into a good job, but he may have to wait in line for another prisoner to leave before the right job opens.

Working One’s Way into the Right Job in Federal Prison:

Within days after the prisoner clears the A&O process, a counselor will assign him to a job if he has not already found one. That’s why one of the first things a person ought to do after he arrives at a prison is to locate a job that suits him. Some jobs are easy to get into, others take a while.

UNICOR jobs have a long waiting list. Staff members generally control those waiting lists. If the prisoner has special skills that the factory needs (there always is a need for competent clerks), they may avoid the waiting list. Otherwise, individuals who want to work in UNICOR will be placed on one of three waiting lists.

• The first list is a UNICOR-prior list, and only inmates who worked in UNICOR at their prior institution will be placed on that list.
• The second list is the FRP-wait list, which is for those inmates who owe at least $1,000 as part of their criminal sentence. Administrators give those inmates priority in UNICOR jobs because half the prisoner’s monthly pay will go toward the financial obligation related to the criminal sentence.
• Prisoners who want to work in UNICOR but do not fit into one of the other two categories will be placed on the general-UNICOR waiting list. It may take three years for those prisoners to be assigned to the factory.

In most jobs besides those in the factory, certain prisoners have a high degree of influence in shaping the work-detail roster. Either they manage the rosters themselves, or they work closely with a staff supervisor who assigns the prison job. It is important for newly arriving inmates to figure out what it is they want to do with their time. If they have the requisite skills and want structure and quiet in their day, they may pursue a job in education. If they want freedom, they may look for a job as a unit orderly.

Whatever they choose, they ought to get information from others in the population. Ordinarily, there will be a few prisoners with influence. New prisoners may benefit from finding those people with influence. Listen, learn, and work toward finding a job that will ease the adjustment inside.

Gordon’s Story:

“I began looking for a job as soon as I cleared A&O. I didn’t know anyone in the prison. I had 20 months to serve, and all I knew was that I didn’t want to work in Food Service. I enjoy reading, so I tried to get a job in the library. Since I was new, I didn’t know any prisoners. I went to the staff member who ran the library and asked her to sign a copout so I could work for her. She accepted my copout and said she would take care of it. Then, a week later, I saw my name on the callout sheet. I got assigned to work in Food Services, just what I didn’t want. Worse still, because I was a new prisoner, they were posting me to the least desirable shift—I was going to work scrubbing pots and pans.

Later, Gordon found another prisoner that had some influence. Gordon said he gave him $25 worth of commissary after he got hired to become a librarian.

Camp Drivers:

In minimum-security camp, some people are assigned as “drivers.” They leave the camp every day in a car. They drive to local stores or businesses to run errands for staff members.

When Michael was confined at the Lompoc Federal Prison Camp, he told me about a person that had an unusual prison job as a long-distance truck driver.

The camp in Lompoc operated a dairy. The dairy, with several hundred head of cattle, produced milk. People in the prison processed the milk into containers. The inmate driver transported the milk to other federal prisons. He left the prison each week and spent days on the road, driving the truck from California to Arizona and back. While traveling, the driver slept in a roadside motel and he ate in restaurants. The inmate driver may have been serving time, but he was on the road several days each week without any supervision.

Michael said there were only two or three “camp driver” positions. And they rarely became available. Many staff members were involved in the decision of which person to hire for the role.

Justin Paperny