Work Assignments in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

Work Assignments in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

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 federal prisons.  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, dishwashers, 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.

Obtaining a Desirable Work Detail

Once the federal prison inmate understands what type of work they desire, they need to seek assignment to the specific work detail.  This can be done through one of three methods:

  • Submitting a cop-out is as simple as obtaining a cop-out from the inmate’s housing unit guard, writing the request for employment on it, and submitting it to the head guard over the work detail.  The guard could grant or deny the request, or, more likely, ignore the request.  While this method of seeking desired prison employment could work, it is not the most effective way of influencing a work assignment placement.
  • More effective than submitting a cop-out is to ask a friend to call in a favor.  The process here is simple.  The prisoner seeking a job asks their friends and associates if any of them are friendly or connected with the head inmate over the desired work detail. If someone is found, the connection is asked to make the request on behalf of the prisoner seeking the prison job.
  • The final, and most effective, method of influencing a work assignment is to merely pay the head inmate over the desired work detail.  This is a simple task but does require funding.  In order to do so, the prisoner seeking the work assignment goes to the location of the work detail, asks around for the head clerk, and explains that they want to be assigned to the work crew.  An offer of payment is made, and if there is space and the ability for the work assignment to be influenced, the head inmate clerk will dictate terms.  Payment in the $5 to $10 range is customary when influencing a work assignment.

If a new arrival does not seek approval for a specific work detail, he or she will likely be placed in the chow hall cleaning tables before, during, and after meals.  Many strongly object to this sort of time-consuming and menial work.  As such, the drive to find a more suitable work assignment is prevalent.

Actualities of Prison Work

The truth of the matter is that most federal prisoners seek out jobs that don’t require a whole lot of work.  These are commonly referred to as “no-show” or “sign-in” jobs, where the federal prison inmate only has to show up occasionally or even only once a month to sign their paysheet.  But, for those who want to work and make a small amount of money, there are jobs that either pay better (e.g., clerk positions, UNICOR employment, etc.), provide access to items which can be stolen and sold (e.g., kitchen workers often steal and sell food and vegetables), or provide access to tools which can be used to engage in a trade (e.g., an electrician could fix radios, headphones, and MP3 players).  All it takes is a bit of imagination, connections, or effort and the desired type of prison employment can be sought and attained.