In general, people sentenced to serve time in federal prison are required to hold a job if they are medically able to do so. A person’s prison counselor typically will assign their jobs, especially those newly admitted to a facility.
Otherwise, as people make their way around a prison facility, they network and learn about available jobs. If they find a job opportunity, they can bring it to their counselor for approval and assignment.
Prison work assignments include almost every department in a prison facility, including food service, commissary, library, laundry, or warehouse. Other jobs include unit orderly (or cottage maintenance), plumber, painter, landscaper, or groundskeeper. Most of the hands-on jobs in a facility are in the hands of people serving time.
You would be wrong to think there is no competition in prison for the best jobs since people only earn 12¢ to 40¢ per hour for their work assignments, and basic pay is about $5.25/month.
In fact, people in federal prison compete intensely for the job assignments they think will work best for their needs. And what qualifies as the best prison job depends on a person’s likes and needs.
The highest possible pay is most attractive for some people because they have no family support. For others, working at the Recreation Department is desirable, even for basic maintenance pay, if the boss allows them to get their exercise in while at work! Others might want a job in the library when they are working on their legal papers or filing an appeal. People who seek access to the Lieutenant’s and Captains might seek a position cleaning offices in the administration building. And so on.
A popular view among many people in prison is that UNICOR offers more desirable jobs, as they offer higher pay and a wider variety of jobs.
UNICOR is the trade name for Federal Prison Industries (FPI), a wholly-owned, self-sustaining Government corporation that sells market-priced services and quality goods made by people in prison. They make signs or license plates, rebuild computers, make furniture, sew, process food, or do metal fabrication. However, not all federal prisons have UNICOR factories.
One more thing: in many prison facilities, newly admitted people get automatically assigned to specific less desirable jobs, such as the morning shift in food services, which requires people to get up at 4:30 am and be at work by 5 am before the 5:15 am count.
With all this background, here is a list of jobs for federal prisoners, specifically the federal prison camps.
Head Unit Orderly or Clerk:
The cottage maintenance staff or orderlies clean the dorms, bathroom, tv room, microwave room, etc. The head orderly works with the officers in charge of the dorms doing job assignments. Sometimes they can influence bed assignments, which are a big deal.
Food Services Cooks:
Good, dedicated cooks are valuable to staff. They are paid well by prison standards, well above maintenance pay. They may receive monthly bonuses, sometimes doubling their monthly pay. Cooks can get access to extra food occasionally, which they value. The prison hustle is an incentive for some.
Teaching a course is a good way to give back to the prison and also endear yourself to prisoners and staff.
UNICOR is a desirable job since you can make more money. Some prisons have “factories” that create or build items for the prison but also for the federal government. UNICOR makes clothes, electronics, office products and much more.
As the name suggests, town drivers in lower-security prisons and camps are trusted to drive people to doctor’s appointments, bus stops, airports, etc., as needed. Town driver is a position of trust and responsibility that allows people to be off the prison compound regularly, pays well, and provides access to the officers who run the facilities.
Food Services Clerk:
The clerk is the highest inmate position in the food services department. The clerk works hand in hand with the officers who run food services, helps with administrative work, inventory, schedules for other workers, etc. The clerk works hard, and the hours can be long, but it is desirable because people can get bonuses every month that sometimes double their pay. Can make $200/month or more.
Once they receive training and have experience, some people can make several hundred dollars a month compared to $5.25.
These jobs are mostly cleaning offices, hallways, and bathrooms, but some people like the chance to get to know the Captain or Lieutenant. People believe those relationships can sometimes be helpful to their goals while incarcerated. The schedule is fine, leaving people with some free time to work out and do other things. The pay is okay, not the highest. People who work there sometimes get access to information before the rest of the general population.
The pay is decent, but the big perk is eating from a different batch of meals. In some facilities, staff dining workers prepare the meals for the officers, including the Captain, Lieutenants, Warden. When they are good at the job, the officers appreciate them and want to keep them happy—potential for extra food, bonus pay, and access to prison hustle.
While many inmates get jobs helping dispense commissary, there are usually one or two spots for the clerks, who get paid more and work more closely with the officers. Commissary clerks can get first dibs on hard to get items, a big deal.
Access to good clothes, bedrolls, tailoring, and other perks working in laundry makes this position desirable for many people. The pay is better than many other jobs, and the head clerk gets paid the highest.