Work Assignments in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

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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St. Cloud State University Distance Learning for Inmates

St. Cloud State University’s Pathways Program for Incarcerated Students offers individuals the opportunity to earn an Associate Degree or take college courses for personal growth and development.

The Center for Continuing Studies works with the SCSU faculty to make a number of correspondence courses available.  These courses cover the same content as the on campus and online versions.  Students receive assignments and other course materials through the mail and communicate with faculty by mail.  Please check the link below for a current list of correspondence courses available.  Image courtesy

Students can choose to pursue and Associate Degree entirely in the correspondence format.  Students who choose to do so must understand that using this format lengthens the time needed to earn the degree and may involve taking correspondence courses at other institutions to fill gaps in our offerings.   

Students who are admitted to the University through Pathways for Incarcerated Students become part of St. Cloud State University’s long-standing tradition of excellence and opportunity.

  • Degree Options
  • Program Support and Student Resources
  • How to Apply

The Pathways Program for Incarcerated Students offers two degree options:

  • The Associate in Arts degree is intended to provide a broad liberal arts and sciences background. AA programs require completion of the general education program and additional credits to total at least 60 semester credit hours. The AA program may serve as the foundation for a bachelor’s degree.
  • The Associate in Elective Studies degree program provides students the unique opportunity of designing their own program of study. The AES requires the completion of 60 semester hour credits, with no more than 30 credits in any one discipline. This degree is considered a terminal degree that does not lead to a bachelor’s degree, but may be a good option for those seeking education purely for personal development. Students wishing to complete an associate’s degree and continue on to a bachelor’s degree should choose the Associate in Arts program.
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