The state prison experience: Too much drudgery, not enough opportunity

September 7, 2022

FROM The Prison Policy Initiative, BY Leah Wang
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As 1.25 million people in state prisons navigate their sentences, many are eager to find hope for a better life after release. They may seek out ways to work and earn a living behind bars, set themselves up for success upon release, and gain a better skillset for navigating life outside of the criminal legal system. Prisons often claim to provide appropriate educational programming, vocational training, and other opportunities for growth or “rehabilitation.” But as the most recent, nationally representative data from state prisons show, these facilities provide few opportunities for people looking to make the most of their time inside. Instead, prisons — guided by state policies, as well as the broad discretion of correctional staff — tend to focus on enforcing rigid rules and filling incarcerated people’s time with menial work, without which the prison could not function.

Using data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates, this briefing reveals how prisons fail to implement programs that we know “work” at setting incarcerated people up for success in the future (such as giving people opportunities to earn money, obtain an education, or gain relevant job skills).  These failures have far-reaching effects: When people in prison have little to no income, they may accumulate child support debt, suffer without essential commissary items, or be unable to access communication with loved ones, which can impact people on both sides of the bars. Less overall opportunity in prison can mean lowered prospects for employment and finding stable footing upon release.

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Major Conclusions and recommendations

In the name of “justice,” states misguidedly send large numbers of people with low levels of education and income to prison, and then offer them little in the way of economic, professional, or personal growth opportunities to increase the odds of a better future. The Survey data show that incarcerated people are starved for opportunities to earn a real living and find purpose in state prisons. It’s in everyone’s best interest to offer meaningful opportunities to incarcerated people — for one, it costs far less to educate someone compared to locking them up. Putting obvious fiscal considerations aside, disrupting the cycles of struggle, unlawful or violent behaviors, and incarceration will require more compassionate — and less carceral — interventions.

Policymakers must drill down to these aspects of everyday prison life to improve outcomes. Without better opportunity and preparation, the hope to which so many incarcerated people cling throughout their sentences will wane, their cycles of incarceration will continue, and the crisis of mass incarceration will continue to be one of our nation’s greatest failures. Therefore, we recommend that states:

Bring prison employment into modern, real-world context:

  • Legally recognize incarcerated workers as employees, affording them workplace protections, the right to unionize, and minimum wages
  • In applicable states, end the requirement to work in prison
  • Ensure that work assignment and job training opportunities align with skills and technologies that are relevant to today’s job market
  • Establish policies and accountability measures to ensure work assignments are not allocated in a discriminatory manner

Shift priorities away from monotonous work and punishment, toward opportunity:

  • Ensure that all incarcerated people are aware of programming and educational opportunities available to them
  • Shift prison budgets away from costly and counterproductive practices like solitary confinement and toward improvements in job training, high-quality higher educationspecial education, and English as a second language education, and other programs
  • Provide people who participate in educational or other prison programs with pay equal to what they would receive for a work assignment
  • Allow people to complete a program before transferring to a facility that does not offer the same program (at a minimum, require that every effort is made to allow continued participation)
  • Ensure that people being released from prison can continue their education or training, instead of having to drop everything and find work immediately to satisfy parole requirements.

Pull back the curtain on rule violations and prison discipline:

  • Acknowledge gender and racial biases in how prison rules are enforced and sanctioned by correctional staff, and work to end excessive and disparate disciplinary practices
  • Prohibit the forfeiture of earned good time as a sanction, as “good time” is a strong motivator for good behavior, and an important tool for safely reducing prison populations
  • End the use of solitary confinement and other forms of harmful, long-term segregation.