why do inmates get paid

Why Do Inmates Get Paid

Understanding the Prison System

The History of Prison Labour

The prison system has long been seen as a place of punishment and correction. In the early 19th century, prison labour was a commonplace concept. The idea was simple: by having inmates work, they could contribute to society, learn valuable skills, and potentially lower the costs associated with running a prison.

The Current State of Prison Labour

Today, prison labour remains a complex and controversial issue. While some see it as a form of exploitation, others see it as a crucial part of rehabilitation. In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Prisons operates a program known as Federal Prison Industries (also known as UNICOR), which employs thousands of inmates across the country.

Reasons Why Inmates Get Paid

Rehabilitation and Skills Development

One of the main reasons inmates are paid for their work is rehabilitation. Through labour, prisoners can learn valuable skills that may aid them once they are released. This helps reduce the rate of recidivism or the likelihood of a released prisoner to reoffend.

Reduction of Prison Expenses

Another reason is the reduction of prison expenses. The money that inmates earn usually goes towards supporting their basic needs within the prison, reducing the overall cost of incarceration for the state.

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Behavioural Incentive

Lastly, payment serves as a behavioural incentive. Being able to work and earn money provides a positive reinforcement for good behaviour, encouraging inmates to follow rules and regulations.

The Economics of Prison Labour

Benefits to the Economy

Prison labour has economic benefits too. Inmates produce goods and services, which contributes to the economy. Furthermore, by teaching inmates skills and trades, it prepares them for gainful employment upon release, potentially reducing their dependency on welfare.

Criticism and Controversy

Despite these benefits, there’s significant criticism around the exploitation and low wages associated with prison labour. Critics argue that it perpetuates a system of cheap labour and does not sufficiently prepare inmates for meaningful employment post-release.

International Perspective on Inmate Pay

Prison Labour in Other Countries

Around the world, prison labour policies vary. Some countries pay their inmates at rates comparable to outside wages, while others offer minimal compensation or none at all.

Global Human Rights Perspectives

International human rights organizations have set guidelines stating that prison labour should not be of a punitive nature but rather aim to rehabilitate and reintegrate inmates into society.


In conclusion, inmates get paid for a variety of reasons, ranging from rehabilitation to economic benefits. However, the system of prison labour is not without its critics, who argue for better wages and conditions for working inmates.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Do all prisons pay their inmates for work? Not all prisons pay their inmates. The policy varies by state and country.
  2. What kind of work do inmates do? Inmates can do a variety of work, including manufacturing, agriculture, and service work.
  3. How much do inmates get paid? The pay varies significantly, from a few cents per hour to a few dollars, depending on the location and the nature of the work.
  4. Are there restrictions on what an inmate can spend their earnings on? Yes, there are often restrictions. The money can be used for commissary items, phone calls, and sometimes to pay off court fines or restitution.
  5. Is prison labour considered a form of modern-day slavery? This is a matter of ongoing debate. Critics argue that the low wages and conditions can be likened to slavery, while proponents see it as a vital part of rehabilitation and cost management.
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