The state prison experience: Too much drudgery, not enough opportunity
An underutilized government dataset goes deep into daily life in state prisons — including work assignments, programming, and discipline — revealing lost opportunities for rehabilitation, education, and hope.
by Leah Wang, September 2, 2022
As 1.25 million people in state prisons navigate their sentences, many are eager to find hope for a better life after release. They may seek out ways to work and earn a living behind bars, set themselves up for success upon release, and gain a better skillset for navigating life outside of the criminal legal system. Prisons often claim to provide appropriate educational programming, vocational training, and other opportunities for growth or “rehabilitation.” But as the most recent, nationally representative data from state prisons show, these facilities provide few opportunities for people looking to make the most of their time inside. Instead, prisons — guided by state policies, as well as the broad discretion of correctional staff — tend to focus on enforcing rigid rules and filling incarcerated people’s time with menial work, without which the prison could not function.
Using data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates, this briefing reveals how prisons fail to implement programs that we know “work” at setting incarcerated people up for success in the future (such as giving people opportunities to earn money, obtain an education, or gain relevant job skills). 1 These failures have far-reaching effects: When people in prison have little to no income, they may accumulate child support debt, suffer without essential commissary items, or be unable to access communication with loved ones, which can impact people on both sides of the bars. Less overall opportunity in prison can mean lowered prospects for employment and finding stable footing upon release.
Prison work is often compulsory, does little to build useful skills, and pays almost nothing
Prison jobs, often called “work assignments,” are the most common “programming” offered in state prisons. 2 Prisons rely on the labor of incarcerated people for food service, laundry, and other tasks that offset operational expenses. (While less common, some prisons also contract with public and private entities, assigning some people to “prison industries” jobs where they do anything from make eyeglasses to fight wildfires.) In general, work assignments are not thoughtfully designed to provide job skills and development: They are intended to keep the prison running and keep “idleness” at bay.
Employment as we know it outside of the carceral system is typically a consensual relationship between employer and employee, and protected by employment laws; prison work assignments, on the other hand, are often compulsory, and incarcerated workers have few rights and protections compared to non-incarcerated workers.3 Prison labor is sealed off from standard workplace protections and minimum wage laws by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which contains an “exception clause” allowing slavery or involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime.
If an incarcerated person refuses to work, they often face disciplinary action. Those who do work receive paltry wages — far less than $1 per hour, typically – and even those mere pennies are often deducted to pay for fees, restitution, and child support, or must be saved for basic necessities like medical visits, hygiene items, and phone calls.
According to the national Survey:
- 58% of people in state prisons have a work assignment. Most of these jobs help keep the prison functioning, such as janitorial duties (29% of workers); food preparation (20%); working in a prison library, stockroom, barber shop, or similar (12%); groundskeeping (10%); and jobs doing maintenance, repair, or construction (7.4%). Only about 6% work in “prison industries” jobs, producing goods or services for other state agencies or companies.4
- Considering the broader context of incarcerated people’s lives before prison, 61% of those who had provided at least half of their household’s income before their arrest reported having a prison work assignment in prison. These individuals are now almost certainly earning significantly less than they did in the outside world. And the remaining 39% of former income-providers who now have no work assignment may be experiencing a dramatic shift from providing for their loved ones to having no income to contribute to their families at all.
- Most (71%) people with a work assignment are required to have one, suggesting that many people are forced to work. While many people in prison want to be productive while behind bars, they lack any control in pursuing relevant, stimulating, and/or safe work assignments.5
- People in prison who were not forced, but chose to work, said the following reasons were “very important” in their decision: learning new skills (70%), earning money (54%), relieving boredom (51%), or earning good time for earlier release (45%). (Only the 29% of people who chose to work were asked about their motivations.)
- White people in state prisons were slightly more likely than people of other racial and ethnic groups to have a work assignment (63%, compared to 54%-58% for other groups). Previous studies point to racial bias (and gender bias) in how jobs are assigned to incarcerated people.
The Survey did not ask about wages earned (or even whether respondents earned anything at all), but a recent analysis found that the highest-paid incarcerated people earned over one dollar per hour in “industries” jobs, while the typical state prison job — doing things like laundry, food preparation, or other tasks supporting prison operations — paid only 13 to 52 cents per hour.6 These unthinkably low wages have remained stagnant since our 2017 deep dive into prison earnings (and even then, we found that some prisons were paying workers less than they had in 2001). Considering the additional blow dealt by inflation, people in prison have virtually no chance of building up financial savings, no matter how hard they work.
State prisons lack educational opportunities, job training, and programming that would help develop skills
Prison work assignments are not the only area where prison policies are inconsistent with what we know would help incarcerated people. In the words of one group of researchers, prison programs that build skills, confidence, and mental health “reduce recidivism by increasing the opportunity cost of committing crimes.” But the staggering length of waiting lists for education and programming at many facilities nationwide tells us not only that incarcerated people want programming, but that there is not nearly enough.
Overall, about two-thirds (68%) of people in state prison have participated in some type of programming, including education (43%); job training (33%); and classes in anger management (35%), parenting (17%), or money management (17%).
According to the Survey:
- Because most work assignments involve menial tasks that are unlikely to help people find skilled work upon release, it seems likely that job training programs would be popular among incarcerated skill-seekers. But the Survey data show that only one-third (33%) of people in state prisons report ever having participated in job training. This lack of widespread job training opportunities may help explain why 29% of incarcerated workers voluntarily chose to take on their work assignments.
- Most of those (58%) who were ever enrolled in job training successfully completed their program, but 1 in 5 (20%) people were prematurely cut off from their program before finishing.7
- White and Hispanic people were the least likely racial or ethnic groups to participate in job training (29% each, compared to 33%-37% for other groups). This disparity could be explained by the fact that white and Hispanic people had the highest rates of pre-prison employment, which could indicate less need for training.
Offering education in prisons has a known return on investment, leading to well-documented reductions in recidivism and providing the credentials that lead to better jobs. People tend to enter prison with lower-than-average education levels, and were often under-supported and over-disciplined while in school.8 Yet instead of being able to make up for lost time by enrolling in educational programs, the Survey data reveal that only 43% of people in state prisons have participated in educational programming (even though 62% had not completed high school upon admission). Participation rates in education are similar among men and women and across age groups, though incarcerated women are more likely to have a high school education than incarcerated men.
Our analysis of the Survey results also found that:
- Among the 57% of people in state prisons who had never participated in educational programming, the reasons they cite for not participating are illuminating: 18% — over 125,000 people — had never been offered the chance. Another 11% said that they weren’t qualified or allowed to attend, and 7.3% said they could not get into an education program or were waitlisted — again pointing to the widespread problem of waitlists for programming in prisons. Some of these same failures to inform people of educational opportunities and get them enrolled applied to job training programs, too.
- White people in state prisons were the least likely to participate in an education program compared to all other racial and ethnic groups.9 This finding may be related to the relatively higher educational attainment of white people who enter state prison compared to other groups, particularly Black and Hispanic people, and the requirement in some prison systems that people without a high school education must enroll in basic education courses.
- Half (53%) of people without a high school credential reported former or current enrollment in education programs, compared to less than 30% of people with at least a high school diploma – further evidence that high school and college opportunities aren’t equally available in prisons.10 While high school equivalency (e.g., GED) programs can start to bridge the education gap between incarcerated people and the general public, the lack of higher education opportunities remains a problem, as a high school education alone greatly limits employment prospects.11
Even minor rule violations in prison can have serious consequences
Prisons have strict rules that govern nearly every aspect of life, and incarcerated people face frequent, excessive, and often arbitrary punishment for alleged violations of those rules. Importantly, discipline systems in prison do not have nearly the same level of due process or transparency that courts do: Correctional officers can hand out “tickets” for suspected rule violations at their discretion, setting off a series of administrative hearings and investigations led by prison staff. People behind bars do not have the right to an attorney (related to the violation), to cross-examine witnesses, or to be judged by a jury of their peers, even when they are accused of an action that would be a crime in the free world. And whether the incarcerated person pleads guilty or not, a hearing committee or higher authority can issue sanctions to almost any degree.
In his 1975 illuminating deep-dive, Prisons: Houses of Darkness, law professor Leonard Orland points out the trap set by unjust systems of prison discipline, which still holds true today:
“Punishment imposed by a prison discipline committee constitutes a most unfair kind of ‘triple jeopardy.’ Typically, the same committee that ordered punitive segregation also has the power to take away statutorily or meritoriously earned ‘good time,’ … Moreover, records of such misconduct are seen by the parole boards and may well be a factor in parole denial. Thus, a finding of prison misconduct may result in three separate losses of freedom for the inmate.”
Our analysis of the Survey data shows that people in state prisons can be harshly punished even for minor, non-violent infractions. This is disproportionately true for women, and in some cases for people of color. Specifically:
- More than half (53%) of people in state prisons had been written up for or found guilty of at least one rule violation in the past year.12 This is the same percentage of people written up for rule violations in 1986 – although state prisons in 2016 held nearly 800,000 more people than they did 30 years prior, so far more individuals are impacted by prison discipline today. Of respondents who were written up at least once in the 12 months prior to the Survey, about 9% reported receiving a “major” violation, a category that includes assault, rioting, attempted escape, and food strikes.
- Women in prison are more likely to report being written up for a rule violation in the past year than men (58% versus 53%). Of those who were written up at least once, women were more likely to have received a “minor” rule violation than men (70% versus 57%). These data align with research showing that women are more likely to be written up and disciplined for breaking prison rules, and receive disproportionate punishment for minor, subjective infractions like “disrespect.”
- Nearly all people (90%) with a major or minor rule violation in the previous year received some form of disciplinary action. Of those who were disciplined, about half (53%) lost certain “privileges,” like access to the commissary, visitation, or phone calls, even though these things should arguably be considered “essentials,” not “privileges,” in prison. And 1 in 8 (12%) lost sentence-reducing “good time” (days credited off one’s sentence for good behavior) that they’d already earned. And, of course, these violations become part of each individual’s disciplinary record, which impacts weighty decisions including parole release. All of these punishments underscore the high stakes of prison discipline.
- One-third (35%) of those who received a disciplinary action for their most recent rule violation were ordered to solitary confinement, an extreme measure that is hardly ever appropriate (and often comes with the losses of other “privileges” mentioned above). This high dependence on solitary confinement is particularly concerning, as the international human rights community considers solitary confinement, as practiced in U.S. prisons, to be torture.13
- Men (26%) were more likely than women (17%) to receive solitary confinement as a sanction for a rule violation. This finding tracks with national data on the use of “restricted housing,” which includes solitary confinement. Some state prison systems have recently moved to cut down on using solitary for specific populations (for example, Massachusetts eliminated the “restrictive housing unit” at its only women’s prison in 2020). However, women were more likely than men (18% vs. 12%) to be confined to their own cell as punishment, a practice that advocates consider similarly egregious.
- Racial disparities in sanction types were not readily apparent through the Survey data. For example, between 22% and 28% of each racial or ethnic group was sent to solitary confinement as a sanction, and between 1% and 4% of any given group were transferred to another facility as punishment. Nevertheless, research points to alarming racial disparities in how rule violations in state prisons are recorded and disciplined.14
- The survey data suggest that prisons lean heavily on solitary confinement for infractions that involve no physical harm, such as “verbal assault.”15 Even respondents who were written up for things falling into the category “other minor violations” ended up in solitary 17% of the time. Even if everyone who was ordered to solitary confinement for their most recent past-year violation served just one day there (and many certainly had much longer stints than that), this amounts to 135,000 days, or 370 years in solitary confinement.
Prison rules and disciplinary procedures are an under-discussed issue that shapes daily prison life. As the Survey findings make clear, just as with work assignments and programming, there is a disconnect when it comes to rule violations between what prisons do in practice and what would actually help people return to their communities with a fair chance at a good life. Solitary confinement, in particular, is incredibly damaging to mental health, even increasing the risk of premature death after release from prison. But any sanctions that disrupt what little support exists for incarcerated people are bound to fail them in the long run.
Conclusion and recommendations
In the name of “justice,” states misguidedly send large numbers of people with low levels of education and income to prison, and then offer them little in the way of economic, professional, or personal growth opportunities to increase the odds of a better future. The Survey data show that incarcerated people are starved for opportunities to earn a real living and find purpose in state prisons. It’s in everyone’s best interest to offer meaningful opportunities to incarcerated people — for one, it costs far less to educate someone compared to locking them up. Putting obvious fiscal considerations aside, disrupting the cycles of struggle, unlawful or violent behaviors, and incarceration will require more compassionate — and less carceral — interventions.
Policymakers must drill down to these aspects of everyday prison life to improve outcomes. Without better opportunity and preparation, the hope to which so many incarcerated people cling throughout their sentences will wane, their cycles of incarceration will continue, and the crisis of mass incarceration will continue to be one of our nation’s greatest failures. Therefore, we recommend that states:
Bring prison employment into modern, real-world context:
- Legally recognize incarcerated workers as employees, affording them workplace protections, the right to unionize, and minimum wages
- In applicable states, end the requirement to work in prison16
- Ensure that work assignment and job training opportunities align with skills and technologies that are relevant to today’s job market
- Establish policies and accountability measures to ensure work assignments are not allocated in a discriminatory manner
Shift priorities away from monotonous work and punishment, toward opportunity:
- Ensure that all incarcerated people are aware of programming and educational opportunities available to them
- Shift prison budgets away from costly and counterproductive practices like solitary confinement and toward improvements in job training, high-quality higher education, special education, and English as a second language education, and other programs
- Provide people who participate in educational or other prison programs with pay equal to what they would receive for a work assignment17
- Allow people to complete a program before transferring to a facility that does not offer the same program (at a minimum, require that every effort is made to allow continued participation)
- Ensure that people being released from prison can continue their education or training, instead of having to drop everything and find work immediately to satisfy parole requirements18
Pull back the curtain on rule violations and prison discipline:
- Acknowledge gender and racial biases in how prison rules are enforced and sanctioned by correctional staff, and work to end excessive and disparate disciplinary practices
- Prohibit the forfeiture of earned good time as a sanction, as “good time” is a strong motivator for good behavior,19 and an important tool for safely reducing prison populations
- End the use of solitary confinement and other forms of harmful, long-term segregation
You can read more about the demographic, early life, and health-related results from the 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates in two of our latest reports, Beyond the Count: A deep dive into state prison populations, and Chronic Punishment: The unmet health needs of people in state prisons, and our briefings, What the Survey of Prison Inmates tells us about trans people in state prison and Both sides of the bars: How mass incarceration punishes families. ↩
According to the Survey of Prison Inmates, 58% of people have a work assignment, compared to the next-highest result, 43% of people who have “ever” participated in educational programming. ↩
Though not explicitly excluded, the courts have interpreted the Fair Labor Standards Act – which provides federal minimum wage, overtime protection, and other standards – to exclude incarcerated workers. ↩
The largest nationwide prison industries program partnering with private companies is called the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP), which places incarcerated people into jobs for outside-world employers, where they are paid the “prevailing local wage.” In order to participate in PIECP, corrections departments must promise to “provide worker benefits,” assure voluntary participation, and comply with federal environmental policy. Though these criteria represent a step up from the average prison work assignment, not all state jurisdictions – and relatively few incarcerated people – participate in PIECP. At the end of 2021, just shy of 5,400 people – or 0.4% of people in state and federal prisons – were employed through PIECP. Meanwhile, other prison industries participants are not necessarily guaranteed minimum wage or other protections. ↩
Audits of state prison work programs have revealed that the skills many incarcerated workers are trained in fall short of being relevant for future job-seekers. For instance, one-third of participants in Louisiana‘s state prison enterprises program in 2018 were working in industries expected to decrease in the labor market. And in Mississippi, incarcerated workers were being trained in areas for which there were few actual job prospects in that state. ↩
Raw data from a previous iteration of the Survey of Prison Inmates, conducted in 2004, revealed that only 57% of incarcerated people with work assignments earned any wages for their labor. And according to analysis from the American Civil Liberties Union, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas pay nothing at all in wages to many or all of their incarcerated, non-industry workers. ↩
About 9.5% of people who stopped participating in job training said that they “were no longer allowed to participate”; 6.4% reported that their job training program stopped running before they could complete it; and 4.3% were transferred to another facility before they could complete their program. ↩
The Survey data reveal that 40% of people in state prisons (compared to just 15% of all U.S. adults) have a physical or cognitive disability; in childhood, students with learning disabilities or special education needs are systemically under-supported by a severe shortage of trained personnel and related services, setting them up for failing grades and higher rates of discipline and bullying at school. ↩
Participation in educational programming by race and ethnicity breaks down to the following: white (34%); multiracial (43%); American Indian/Native American (45%); Hispanic (46%); Black (49%); and Asian/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (57%). ↩
This finding tracks with other Bureau of Justice Statistics data showing that the majority (87%) of state and federal U.S. prisons offer high school education, but only half (49%) offered any college courses in 2019. ↩
Additionally, because the average maximum sentence length in state prison is about 15 years (according to the Survey), many people could complete both a high school and a college education during their incarceration. ↩
This is likely an underestimate, because some prisons did not allow certain people to take the Survey of Prison Inmates – including some who may have been more likely to have been written up for breaking prison rules. According to the survey’s methodology, “Refusals by facilities included prisoners who were deemed by the facility to be a safety or security risk because they were too violent to be interviewed. This group also included prisoners to whom SPI interviewers were not permitted access because they were not housed in the general population.” The methodology also notes that “The majority of these [refusals] were from one state,” though they do not specify which state that was. ↩
U.N. experts have noted that the U.S.’s use of prolonged solitary confinement is excessive and amounts to psychological torture. As established by the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the “Nelson Mandela Rules”), prohibits prolonged solitary confinement (confinement for a period longer than 15 consecutive days), noting that the practice violates the ban on torture and cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment. ↩
One researcher examined disciplinary records from North Carolina state prisons in 2020, finding that Black and Indigenous incarcerated people received disproportionate numbers of write-ups and sanctions, compared to their white counterparts. And The New York Times examined disciplinary records from state prisons in New York in 2015, finding that Black and Latino men were disciplined at higher rates and sent to solitary confinement more often than white men. The racial disparity persisted even after controlling for offense type and age. ↩
According to the Survey, over one-third of those written up for “verbal assault” of a correctional officer or incarcerated person were sent to solitary confinement (36% and 35%, respectively). ↩
Based on the Survey of Prison Inmates data alone, which doesn’t contain state identifiers, we don’t know which states’ prison systems require incarcerated people to work. ↩
Compensation for participating in education, programming, or even waiting to enter a program is policy in some state prison systems, including Pennsylvania, but is typically set at the lowest pay tier, disincentivizing participation. ↩
As we explain in our 2018 report Eight Keys to Mercy: How to shorten excessive prison sentences, some states are already extremely frugal in granting good time (or don’t grant it at all), and can take away years of earned good time in an instant, when forfeiture should only be for the most serious rule violations. ↩