Why do Inmates Get Paid?
Why do Inmates Get Paid?

Why do Inmates Get Paid? Reasons and Controversies

When it comes to prison life, many people often wonder why inmates receive any form of payment. After all, they are serving time for a crime they committed, so why should they be rewarded? However, the issue of paying prisoners is much more complex than it seems, with a range of factors and opinions coming into play. In this article, we will explore the reasons why inmates get paid, the controversies surrounding the issue, and what it means for the justice system as a whole.

In the United States, inmates are allowed to work and receive payment for their labor. The concept of paying prisoners is not new and has been in practice for centuries. The idea behind inmate pay is to provide incentives for good behavior and work, as well as to offset the costs of incarceration. However, there is a growing controversy around the issue of inmate pay, with some arguing that it rewards criminal behavior and others claiming that it exploits cheap labor. In this article, we will examine the reasons why inmates get paid, the controversies surrounding the issue, and what it means for the future of the justice system.

The Purpose of Inmate Pay

Encourages Work and Productivity

One of the main reasons why inmates receive pay is to encourage them to work and be productive. The idea behind this is that if prisoners have something to work towards, they are more likely to behave well and follow the rules. Inmates who work are often given more privileges and are more likely to be considered for early release or parole. In addition, working while in prison can help inmates develop job skills and work experience that can be beneficial once they are released.

Helps with Reentry

Another reason why inmates receive pay is to help with their reentry into society. Many inmates struggle to find employment after being released from prison, which can lead to recidivism. By providing inmates with work experience and skills, they are more likely to find employment once they are released, which can reduce their chances of returning to prison. In addition, inmates who work and earn money while in prison can use that money to pay off debts, support their families, or save for their future.

Offsets the Costs of Incarceration

Finally, one of the primary reasons why inmates receive pay is to offset the costs of incarceration. Housing, feeding, and providing medical care for prisoners can be expensive, and the government often relies on inmate labor to help offset these costs. By having inmates work and earn money, the government can reduce the amount of money they spend on prisons and potentially save taxpayers money in the long run.

The Controversies of Inmate Pay

Perception of Rewarding Criminal Behavior

One of the biggest controversies surrounding inmate pay is the perception that it rewards criminal behavior. Some people believe that paying inmates is a way of rewarding them for committing crimes and that it sends the wrong message to society. They believe that prison should be a punishment and that inmates should not receive any form of compensation for their crimes. However, proponents of inmate pay argue that it is not about rewarding criminal behavior, but rather about incentivizing good behavior and promoting productivity.

Exploitation of Cheap Labor

Another controversy surrounding inmate pay is the perception that it exploits cheap labor. Inmates are often paid very low wages for their work, sometimes as little as a few cents per hour. This has led some to argue that inmates are being taken advantage of and that their labor is being exploited. However, others argue that paying inmates a fair wage would be too expensive and that the low pay is necessary to offset the costs of incarceration.

Unequal Payment and Labor Standards

Finally, there is also controversy surrounding the unequal payment and labor standards for inmates. Inmates in different states or in federal prisons may receive different pay rates or have different working conditions. In addition, there have been instances of inmates being forced to work in unsafe or exploitative conditions. These disparities and lack of oversight have led to calls for more consistent and equitable labor standards for inmates.

Inmate Pay Rates and Work Programs

Federal Inmate Pay Scale

The pay rate for federal inmates is set by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The current pay scale ranges from $0.12 to $1.15 per hour, depending on the type of job and the inmate’s experience. Inmates who work in higher-skilled jobs, such as food service or carpentry, can earn more than those who work in lower-skilled jobs, such as janitorial work or laundry. Inmates who participate in work programs, such as the Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR), can earn up to $1.15 per hour.

State Inmate Pay Scale

State inmate pay rates vary widely depending on the state and the specific prison. In some states, inmates are paid nothing for their labor, while in others, they can earn up to $2 per hour. Some states also have different pay scales for different types of work or for inmates with different levels of experience.

Types of Inmate Work Programs

Inmate work programs can vary widely depending on the type of prison and the state or federal system. Some inmates work in jobs within the prison, such as cooking, cleaning, or maintenance. Others may work in industries that produce goods or services, such as furniture manufacturing, call centers, or even firefighting. In addition, some inmates participate in work-release programs, which allow them to work outside of the prison while still serving their sentence.

The Future of Inmate Pay

Alternatives to Inmate Labor

As controversies surrounding inmate pay continue to grow, there are calls for alternatives to inmate labor. Some have proposed using automation or other technology to perform tasks that are currently done by inmates. Others have suggested implementing education or training programs that would prepare inmates for work once they are released.

Advocacy for Abolishing Inmate Pay

Finally, there are also groups and individuals who advocate for abolishing inmate pay altogether. They argue that paying inmates reinforces the idea that prison is a form of punishment, rather than rehabilitation. Instead, they propose redirecting the money spent on inmate pay towards education, healthcare, or other forms of support for inmates.


The issue of inmate pay is a complex and controversial one, with a range of opinions and factors at play. While inmate pay serves several purposes, such as incentivizing good behavior and offsetting the costs of incarceration, it also raises concerns about the perception of rewarding criminal behavior and the exploitation of cheap labor. As the justice system continues to evolve, it will be important to consider the ethical implications of inmate labor and pay, and to strive for more consistent and equitable labor standards. The future of inmate pay is uncertain, but it is clear that the issue will continue to be debated and discussed in the years to come.


Are inmates paid for all types of work they do?

No, inmates are only paid for certain types of work that are designated by the prison or the federal government. Some types of work, such as cleaning or maintenance tasks, may not be eligible for pay.

Can inmates use the money they earn for anything they want?

No, the money that inmates earn is typically placed into a trust fund account that they can use to purchase approved items from the prison commissary. In some cases, inmates may also use the money to pay for court fines or restitution.

How are inmate pay rates determined?

Inmate pay rates are determined by the federal government or the state government, depending on the type of prison. The rates may be based on the type of work, the level of experience of the inmate, and other factors.

Are there any safety regulations or protections for inmates who work?

Yes, there are safety regulations and protections in place to ensure that inmates who work are not put in danger or exposed to harmful conditions. However, there have been instances of safety violations or exploitative practices, which have led to calls for more oversight and regulation.

How do inmates benefit from work programs?

Inmates who participate in work programs can benefit in several ways, such as earning money, developing new skills, and staying productive while serving their sentence. In some cases, work programs may also help prepare inmates for reentry into society by providing job training or other educational opportunities.

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