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.

Prison jobs, often called “work assignments,” are the most common “programming” offered in state prisons. Prisons rely on the labor of incarcerated people for food service, laundry, and other tasks that offset operational expenses. (While less common, some prisons also contract with public and private entities, assigning some people to “prison industries” jobs where they do anything from make eyeglasses to fight wildfires.) In general, work assignments are not thoughtfully designed to provide job skills and development: They are intended to keep the prison running and keep “idleness” at bay.

Read the full article about labor at state prisons by Leah Wang at Prison Policy Initiative.