Sixty-one percent of prison inmates in the United States have work assignments, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).
BJS publishes some national data about work programs in prisons, but there is still room for improving this data to be more frequent and cover more topics related to prison labor.
What are prison work programs?
Prison work programs include several ways that prison inmates provide work to the prison, the public, or private companies.
Inmates can work in prison operations, meaning work that supports the operations of the prisons themselves, such as maintenance, food services, and office or administrative work.
Inmates can work in prison industry programs. Prison industries are government-owned businesses that create and sell products made by inmates, such as license plates or facemasks.
Inmates can also be employed in public work programs, in which inmates provide services for the public that would otherwise be funded by government agencies. This includes road repairs or litter cleanup.
Private companies can also employ inmates through the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP). This program puts inmates into realistic work environments, pays them prevailing wages, and aims to help them develop marketable skills that will help inmates get jobs after being released from prison. There are a total of 37 state PIECP-certified programs and four county programs. These programs involve at least 175 partnerships with private businesses.
Prison operations are the most common type of work program, available in about 95% of prisons. Prison industries (such as license plate, wood product, or textiles manufacturing) are available in about half of all prisons.
Every type of work program reported by BJS was more common in public facilities than in private facilities. In 2019, there were 1,079 public prisons and 82 private prisons.
Among public prisons, prison operations and prison industries were more common in federal prisons, while public works and farming or agricultural work were more common in state-run prisons. In 2019, there were 111 federal prisons and 968 state prisons.
The prisons with the largest number of inmates all have work programs. This boosts the share of inmates held in a prison with work programs. In 2019, 99.6% of inmates were in prisons that offered any work program, and 97.7% were in prisons offering prison operation work programs.
How many prisoners participate in prison work programs?
According to the BJS’s Survey of Prison Inmates, 60.9% of inmates have work assignments. The share of prisoners with work assignments varies across demographic groups, with women and those with higher levels of educational attainment being more likely to have work assignments compared with the overall prison population.
Women and more educated inmates participate more in work assignments.
Total inmates (approximate) and share of inmates with work assignments, by demographic category
Total number of prisoners
Share with work assignments
American Indian/Alaska Native
Asian/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander
Two or more races
Do not identify as any of the above
By education completed prior to admission
Less than high school
High school graduate
College degree or more
How can government data about prison work programs be improved?
While some data on prison labor is currently available from government sources, this data would be more useful to the public and to policymakers if it were collected more frequently and covered additional topics related to prison labor.
The two primary national datasets with information about prison labor are collected at most every five to seven years. The data from the Survey of Prison Inmates was last collected in 2016, and the Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities was last conducted in 2019.
Additionally, the data that is covered in these sources does not cover several topics that may be important to the public and policymakers. For example, government data on how much inmates are paid does not currently exist. Some states publish information about inmate compensation, but the type of data provided varies and is difficult to compare across states.
Other topics that could be of interest but are not yet reflected in government data include whether inmates are required to have work assignments, the total economic output created through prison work programs, inmate working conditions, and who benefits from prison labor.
Some of this data is already collected by prisons or reported by states, but this data can be difficult to find and aggregate, the topics aren’t consistent across states, and much of the data is in PDF documents, making it difficult to extract and compile. There is an opportunity for the federal government to create data collection standards and requirements making it easier to collect existing data in one place and in a common format.
According to the Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional Facilities, private prisons include facilities that are under contract to hold prisoners for state correctional authorities or the Federal Bureau of Prisons but are not operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons or state departments of corrections.