Inmate Work Assignments in Federal Prison

Inmate Work Assignments in Federal Prison

By Christopher Zoukis
Inmate employment is a requirement within the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Except for those inmates who have been designated medically unable to work by Health Services or Psychology Services, all federal prisoners must maintain some form of employment throughout their incarceration. While most inmates will work within the confines of a federal prison, some minimum security inmates housed at Federal Prison Camps are permitted to obtain employment in neighboring communities as part of their release preparation programming.
The types of work assignments available to federal inmates vary widely, and individuals can often find a position that suits their abilities, training, and ambition. Pay is based on a pay-grade scale and depends on a number of factors, including duties, longevity, and performance. Performance bonuses are sometimes awarded. Inmate pay rates are generally non-standardized for specific jobs throughout the federal prison system and wages are nominal for the most part, though some inmates are able to secure positions and pay grades which provide income sufficient for their individual needs. Generally speaking, most federal inmates can expect to earn between $10 and $25 per month, with the lower end of this scale being far more common.
The Inmate Performance Pay grade scale specifies the following rates for the respective pay grades:
-Grade 1: $0.40 per hour
-Grade 2: $0.29 per hour
-Grade 3: $0.17 per hour
-Grade 4: $0.12 per hour
Maintenance Pay: $5.25 per month
Inmates employed by UNICOR (see below) are paid an hourly rate according to the following general UNICOR pay scale:
-Grade 1: $1.15 per hour
-Grade 2: $0.92 per hour
-Grade 3: $0.69 per hour
-Grade 4: $0.46 per hour
-Grade 5: $0.23 per hour
Federal prisons rely heavily on inmate labor to operate under normal conditions and inmate employment opportunities are similar at most institutions. The exceptions are those facilities which offer UNICOR (also known as Federal Prison Industries, Inc.) jobs, or those which provide specialized services, such as Federal Medical Centers (FMCs) and other specialized facilities, where inmates may also fill assorted factory or work cadre positions.
The following is a list of inmate work assignments typical to all federal prisons, with a general description of corresponding work details.

Facilities Department

The Facilities Department encompasses an assortment of maintenance-related shops. These often include the Electrical Shop, HVAC Shop, Plumbing Shop, Paint Shop, Maintenance Shop, and Landscaping/Grounds Crew. Within these various specialty shops inmate technicians fulfill the various department missions under the supervision of a staff foreman. There are usually a few clerks over the whole Facilities Department who handle work orders, scheduling and assigning of the various shops, as well as clerical duties.

Food Service

The Food Service Department is comprised of a variety of separate work details to facilitate all aspects of feeding the institution’s inmate and staff populations. Inmates are regularly assigned as orderlies, sanitation workers, and/or assistants in the following areas: Warehouse, Meat/Vegetable Preparation, Dish Room, Dining Room, Officer’s Mess, Salad Bar, and Spoon Room. Positions are also available as cooks, bakers, line preparation, and line servers. New arrivals are typically assigned to a Food Service work detail until they can obtain more desirable prison employment.

Education Department

The Education Department usually includes a leisure and law library, as well as various classrooms and possibly areas for DVD viewing. Inmate work assignments commonly include librarians, orderlies, tutors, and Adult Continuing Education instructors (ACE). The more educated inmates who enjoy teaching tend to seek out employment in the Education Department.

Recreation Department

The Recreation Department often includes a hobby craft program (e.g., painting, leathercraft, art, beading, etc.), music program, various sports programs, and other activities. Available job assignments may include orderlies, equipment room assistants, referees and umpires, and instructors. Most federal prison Recreation Departments offer a number of “no-show” jobs, where inmates are paid very little, but generally don’t have to show up to work or might only have to sign a sign-in list, but can then leave.

Commissary Department

The commissary is the prison’s store and employs inmate clerks. Inmates on this work detail are responsible for stocking and inventorying merchandise, filling inmate orders, updating “out-of-stock” lists, cleaning, and performing other commissary-related duties. Inmates are not permitted to perform cashier/check-out person functions. These are fulfilled by prison staff members. Federal prison commissaries typically employ a small number of inmates who are paid well, but who have to put in long, stressful hours stocking shelves and filling inmate orders.

Laundry Services

Laundry Services employs general laundry workers who may also perform clothing alterations, mending, and other laundry-related tasks. The primary duties of inmates assigned to the Laundry Services work detail are the collection, washing, drying, and return of inmate clothing. Much like commissary, the few inmates assigned to this work detail must put in long hours, but are also paid well and have certain fringe benefits.

Compound Department

The compound is the central grounds of the prison containing walkways on which inmates travel to and from destinations such as the Recreation Department, Education Department, Religious Services, Commissary Department, Psychology Services, and other areas of the prison. Compound work details usually include clerks (who are responsible for handling inmate pay sheets, safety notification sheets, sanitary equipment check-out, and other inmate clerk duties) and orderlies (who are typically responsible for trash pick-up and general compound sanitation). Compound Departments also have specialized work details depending on the season and the prison’s location. For example, a prison with a large bird population may employ a pigeon sanitation crew with scrub brushes and scrubs waste left by birds on the sidewalks. The snow crew, which clears the walkways of snow, is another example. The compound work detail also may include a large number of “no-show” jobs, where inmates do not have to show up to work or only have to sign their name on a sign-in sheet and then leave.

Safety Department

The Safety Department handles the institution’s recycling, the distribution of chemicals used for cleaning and sanitation, and the distribution of other unit orderly supplies such as toilet paper, paper towels, and other items. Work details within the Safety Department include various orderly and clerk positions.

Religious Services

Federal prison chapels normally offer various chapel orderly positions. These orderlies handle everything from janitorial tasks to setting up and assisting with actual services. Orderlies also assist fellow inmates with checking out books from the chapel library, signing up for special classes or religious programs, and placing religious Special Purchase Orders (SPOs).


The prison Barbershop usually employs a number of inmate barbers who both cut hair and also clean their work areas.

Housing Units

Each inmate housing unit employs a substantial number of inmate orderlies who perform general janitorial duties, including sweeping and mopping floors, cleaning showers, collecting trash and recycling, and other such tasks.


Where available, UNICOR (which is also known as Federal Prison Industries, Inc.) factories use inmate labor to produce a variety of products, from prison uniforms to sensitive military electronics. Some UNICOR factories may employ inmates to perform services such as data entry or the sorting of clothes hangers for retail outlets such as Target. UNICOR is a government-owned corporation which secures contracts with a number of government and private sector sources, providing federal inmates with an assortment of factory- and service-related jobs.

Other Inmate Work Details

Other work details are commonly available at most federal prisons. For example, many inmate clerk and orderly positions, besides those mentioned above, are generally available in most departments, including Health Services, Psychology Services, Receiving & Discharge (R&D), and other departments. Administrative and correctional staff may also utilize inmate clerks and orderlies (e.g., Lieutenant’s Office orderly, Captain’s Office orderly, etc.). Also, in addition to regular work details, inmates at some institutions may be able to obtain various aide positions, such as assistant to a physically handicapped inmate (e.g., wheelchair pusher, etc.), mental health companion, and/or suicide watch volunteer.