Prisons should ensure that detainees are engaged in purposeful and constructive work for the normal working day. Although there is a prohibition on forced labour under international law, standards are clear that sentenced detainees may be required to work, as long as this aims to contribute to the detainee’s re-socialisation and reintegration and is carried out as far as possible in similar conditions as in the outside community. Under no circumstances should prison work be exploitative or afflictive (inflicting mental or physical suffering).
Non-sentenced detainees (pre-trial detainees and those in administrative detention) should be offered work, but may not be required to work. In practice, these categories are often not provided with work, despite the fact they should have more favourable detention conditions than sentenced prisoners.
Purpose of prison work
Ensuring that detainees are engaged in purposeful work is important for the well-being of detainees and staff. Being locked in the cell for substantial periods of the day can be very damaging to detainees’ physical and mental health. Boredom and inactivity can also increase tensions in prisons and make detainees more likely to be disruptive. Although it has implications for staffing and the organisation of the prison, a regime of work and other constructive activity can thus help to reduce tensions and contribute to the smooth running of the institution. Remuneration gained through work also allows detainees to support their needs in detention.
Furthermore, the main purpose of prison work is to help detainees resettle in society and lead a law abiding life upon release. Having steady employment is recognised as one of the most important factors preventing reoffending, as it increases detainees’ sense of self-worth and helps them to support themselves and their families upon release. However, detainees often face barriers finding work upon release, especially if they have not previously had regular employment or have not had the chance to develop the vocational skills that are sought after in the labour market. Prison work should therefore prepare them for working life by providing them with the necessary skills, work experience and self-esteem to increase their chance of finding gainful employment upon release.
Realities of prison work
Prison work can involve different types of work, including for the prison administration, other public authorities, non-profit organisations and/or private companies. Some examples are:
Work for the functioning of the prison, including maintenance, cultivating food and essential every-day tasks such as cooking and cleaning.
Assisting government departments and non-profit organisations, for example by producing goods to be used by them.
Producing goods that are sold on the open market.
In some context, providing tertiary services using telecommunications and information technology.
Despite international and regional standards on prison work, the reality in many contexts is that prisons do not provide enough constructive employment opportunities for detainees. The number of positions is often limited and remuneration low. The type of work offered is also often limited, with positions not linked to vocational training and not necessarily improving the employability of detainees upon release.
Providing work for a normal working day has also proved difficult in prisons given the organisational and staffing implications. In practice, the time detainees are able to spend in work is often dictated by staff shifts and prison routines. Security measures can further limit possibilities for work.
It is common that the availability and type of work differs according to the type of security regime, with detainees in lower security classifications (e.g. open prisons) having greater access to work opportunities, including in the community. While there may be legitimate restrictions on work for security reasons, purposeful work is particularly important for high security detainees given the negative impact of the tightened regime they are commonly subjected to.
Further risks include:
Corruption and systems of detainee self-governance that impede equal access to employment for people who cannot pay bribes or otherwise find themselves discriminated against within these systems.
Prison work may involve exploitation and/or degrading treatment (e.g. if more vulnerable detainees are left the work of cleaning toilets, without any choice).
Individualised skills and training
Work allocation should be part of the sentence planning process for detainees. This means that each detainee should have an individual risk and needs assessment upon entry to the prison, in order to develop a programme of constructive activities for their time in prison. A detainee's sentence plan should include work that will help them to acquire the skills and experience that will be useful for them upon release. This will depend on their individual background, ability and interests, as well as the kind of employment that is available in the prison and/or in the community.
As far as possible, prison work should be linked to vocational training – especially for younger detainees. Detainees should have the possibility of choosing the type of work they undertake in the prison (within limits).
There is a risk of discrimination involved in work allocation, in particular against persons with mental and physical disabilities who may be declared unfit for (certain types of) work, whereas as the authorities have the obligation to take reasonable measures to ensure their access to work. To mitigate favouritism and discrimination, work allocation should be carried out on the basis of clear and transparent criteria.
Detainees should only be required to work if they are pronounced mentally and physically fit to do so by a doctor - this should be part of the medical check-up upon admission. The medical check-up should always be conducted in the interest of the detainee. There is a risk of discrimination in the assessment as to whether detainees are fit for work, in particular against detainees with mental and physical disabilities.
Normal working life
Working life in prison should resemble as far as possible that of similar work in the community, which can vary greatly according to the context. This includes considerations such as working hours, health and safety considerations, retirement, remuneration and including prisoners in the national social security system. This is to protect the welfare of detainees, ensure work is non-exploitative and help detainees get used to the routine and conditions of working life for when they seek to (re)enter the labour market. Detainees who reach retirement age should not be required to work but should be offered the possibility of working.
Safe working conditions
Local laws and regulations on health and safety at work should apply to work in prisons. Detainees should have a safe working environment and equipment and be appropriately dressed and protected; safety procedures should be in place and followed. Detainees should be indemnified against industrial injury and occupational disease on the same conditions as people working in the community. Inspections by health and safety experts from the community can help ensure that local standards are respected.
Working hours and balance with other activities
The maximum daily and weekly working hours should be fixed by law or regulation, taking into account local rules or customs. They should not be excessive and should leave at least one rest day per week (the same as the working week in the relevant country). There should be enough time for education and other constructive activities which would be of benefit to detainees. In practice, activities in prison are often offered at the same time and in working hours, meaning that detainees must choose between them. One solution is to offer staggered schedules, to ensure that the choice is not mutually exclusive. Work should not act as a disincentive in respect to other constructive activities, such as vocational training or studies.
Detainees should receive decent and equitable remuneration for their work. Rates of remuneration and how these are calculated should be clear, transparent and understandable to detainees. In some contexts, minimum wages in prisons are set by law or regulation (e.g. proportionate to average wages in the given profession). However, in practice such standards may not be met or it can be difficult to assess whether they are applied (for example if minimum wages are set by hour but detainees are paid according to production).
In terms of the use of wages:
Part of the earnings should be made available to the detainee for personal use, e.g. to purchase approved items in the prison.
Part of the earnings should be set aside by the administration, to be provided to the detainee upon release – this can be important to help the detainee support themselves with basic needs such as food and housing upon release.
Detainees may also be required to contribute part of their earnings towards reparations for the offence they committed.
In some contexts, detainees have some measure of decision-making over the use of their earnings while in others the proportion of wages to be devoted to each purpose is provided for by law/regulation.
Work for government or private contractors?
In some contexts where private companies provide prison work, there are criticisms that prisons are used to provide cheap labour undercutting the market and/or drive down wages in the community through competition.
Standards are clear that the interests of the detainee are paramount and should not be subordinated to the motive of making financial profit from prison industries. They further state that it is preferable for prison industries to be operated directly by the administration, given the risks of exploitation. If work is provided by private contractors, it should always be under the supervision of prison personnel given the heightened risk of exploitation involved. In this situation, the full normal wages should be paid to the administration for the work undertaken.
Work in the community
In some prison systems, there is the possibility for detainees to work in the outside community (sometimes depending on the category of regime). Work and educational release may also be provided in the later stages of the sentence, to prepare detainees for release. Where such possibilities exist, they should be awarded on the basis of clear and transparent assessment criteria.
For juvenile detainees, work in the community should be ensured as far as possible.
Equal access to employment
All detainees should have the opportunity to be involved in work that is beneficial to them. There should be no favouritism or discrimination in allocating employment. Detainees in situations of vulnerability may suffer direct or indirect discrimination in terms of accessing employment and may be left the least attractive work in the prison. It is the responsibility of the authorities to take measures to ensure access to employment on an equal footing among detainees.
Persons with physical disabilities may face barriers in accessing work places within the prison. It is the responsibility of the authorities to take reasonable measures to ensure detainees with disabilities have equal access to work, including by providing mobility assistance and/or adapting the environment to minimise any barriers.
Women should have the same opportunities to access purposeful employment as men in prisons, as part of a balanced and comprehensive programme of activities, which take account of gender appropriate needs. Furthermore, the regime should be flexible enough to respond to the needs of pregnant women, nursing mothers and women with children. Childcare facilities or arrangements should be provided to enable women prisoners to participate in work and other activities. In practice, women are often offered limited and stereotyped activities (such as sewing or handicrafts) whereas activities offered to male detainees often have more vocational value.
A lack of purposeful activity is particularly detrimental for young detainees. Young people should be provided the opportunity to work in detention, but should not be required to do so. They should receive equitable remuneration and conditions should resemble as far as possible those of normal working life in the community. In addition, children and young people in detention have the right to vocational training in fields that are likely to prepare them for future employment. Where possible, they should be provided with the opportunity to carry out paid work linked to training, including work placements in the community. All protective international standards on child labour and young workers (including on minimum working age) apply to children and young people in detention. Work should not be a reason to continue their detention.
Young female detainees should have the same access to purposeful employment as young male detainees. In practice, young female detainees are often offered limited and stereotyped activities (such as sewing or handicrafts) whereas activities offered to young male detainees often have more vocational value – this should be avoided.
Legal standards (12) Print
International Convention on the Rights of Migrants and their families
Migrant workers and members of their families who are subjected to any form of detention or imprisonment in accordance with the law in force in the State of employment or in the State of transit shall enjoy the same rights as nationals of those States who are in the same situation.
United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules)
1. The purposes of a sentence of imprisonment or similar measures deprivative of a person’s liberty are primarily to protect society against crime and to reduce recidivism. Those purposes can be achieved only if the period of imprisonment is used to ensure, so far as possible, the reintegration of such persons into society upon release so that they can lead a law-abiding and self-supporting life.
2. To this end, prison administrations and other competent authorities should offer education, vocational training and work, as well as other forms of assistance that are appropriate and available, including those of a remedial, moral, spiritual, social and health- and sports-based nature. All such programmes, activities and services should be delivered in line with the individual treatment needs of prisoners.
1. Sentenced prisoners shall have the opportunity to work and/or to actively participate in their rehabilitation, subject to a determination of physical and mental fitness by a physician or other qualified health-care professionals.
2. Sufficient work of a useful nature shall be provided to keep prisoners actively employed for a normal working day.
1. Prison labour must not be of an afflictive nature.
2. Prisoners shall not be held in slavery or servitude.
3. No prisoner shall be required to work for the personal or private benefit of any prison staff.
1. So far as possible the work provided shall be such as will maintain or increase the prisoners’ ability to earn an honest living after release.
2. Vocational training in useful trades shall be provided for prisoners able to profit thereby and especially for young prisoners.
3. Within the limits compatible with proper vocational selection and with the requirements of institutional administration and discipline, prisoners shall be able to choose the type of work they wish to perform.
1. The organization and methods of work in prisons shall resemble as closely as possible those of similar work outside of prisons, so as to prepare prisoners for the conditions of normal occupational life.
2. The interests of the prisoners and of their vocational training, however, must not be subordinated to the purpose of making a financial profit from an industry in the prison.
1. Preferably, institutional industries and farms should be operated directly by the prison administration and not by private contractors.
2. Where prisoners are employed in work not controlled by the prison administration, they shall always be under the supervision of prison staff. Unless the work is for other departments of the government, the full normal wages for such work shall be paid to the prison administration by the persons to whom the labour is supplied, account being taken of the output of the prisoners.
1. The precautions laid down to protect the safety and health of free workers shall be equally observed in prisons.
2. Provision shall be made to indemnify prisoners against industrial injury, including occupational disease, on terms not less favourable than those extended by law to free workers.
1. The maximum daily and weekly working hours of the prisoners shall be fixed by law or by administrative regulation, taking into account local rules or custom in regard to the employment of free workers.
2. The hours so fixed shall leave one rest day a week and sufficient time for education and other activities required as part of the treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners.
1. There shall be a system of equitable remuneration of the work of prisoners.
2. Under the system, prisoners shall be allowed to spend at least a part of their earnings on approved articles for their own use and to send a part of their earnings to their family.
3. The system should also provide that a part of the earnings should be set aside by the prison administration so as to constitute a savings fund to be handed over to the prisoner on his or her release.
United Nations Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners
Conditions shall be created enabling prisoners to undertake meaningful remunerated employment which will facilitate their reintegration into the country's labour market and permit them to contribute to their own financial support and to that of their families.
United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty
(b) Juveniles should be provided, where possible, with opportunities to pursue work, with remuneration, and continue education or training, but should not be required to do so. Work, education or training should not cause the continuation of the detention.
Every juvenile should have the right to receive vocational training in occupations likely to prepare him or her for future employment.
With due regard to proper vocational selection and to the requirements of institutional administration, juveniles should be able to choose the type of work they wish to perform.
All protective national and international standards applicable to child labour and young workers should apply to juveniles deprived of their liberty.
Wherever possible, juveniles should be provided with the opportunity to perform remunerated labour, if possible within the local community, as a complement to the vocational training provided in order to enhance the possibility of finding suitable employment when they return to their communities. The type of work should be such as to provide appropriate training that will be of benefit to the juveniles following release. The organization and methods of work offered in detention facilities should resemble as closely as possible those of similar work in the community, so as to prepare juveniles for the conditions of normal occupational life.
Every juvenile who performs work should have the right to an equitable remuneration. The interests of the juveniles and of their vocational training should not be subordinated to the purpose of making a profit for the detention facility or a third party. Part of the earnings of a juvenile should normally be set aside to constitute a savings fund to be handed over to the juvenile on release. The juvenile should have the right to use the remainder of those earnings to purchase articles for his or her own use or to indemnify the victim injured by his or her offence or to send it to his or her family or other persons outside the detention facility.
CCPR General Comment No. 21: Article 10 (Humane Treatment of Persons Deprived of Their Liberty)
Moreover, the Committee notes that in the reports of some States parties no information has been provided concerning the treatment accorded to accused juvenile persons and juvenile offenders. Article 10, paragraph 2 (b), provides that accused juvenile persons shall be separated from adults. The information given in reports shows that some States parties are not paying the necessary attention to the fact that this is a mandatory provision of the Covenant. The text also provides that cases involving juveniles must be considered as speedily as possible. Reports should specify the measures taken by States parties to give effect to that provision. Lastly, under article 10, paragraph 3, juvenile offenders shall be segregated from adults and be accorded treatment appropriate to their age and legal status insofar as conditions of detention are concerned, such as shorter working hours and contact with relatives, with the aim of furthering their reformation and rehabilitation. Article 10 does not indicate any limits of juvenile age. While this is to be determined by each State party in the light of relevant social, cultural and other conditions, the Committee is of the opinion that article 6, paragraph 5, suggests that all persons under the age of 18 should be treated as juveniles, at least in matters relating to criminal justice. States should give relevant information about the age groups of persons treated as juveniles. In that regard, States parties are invited to indicate whether they are applying the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, known as the Beijing Rules (1987).
Detention guidelines: guidelines on the applicable criteria and standards relating to the detention of asylum-seekers and alternatives to detention
Guideline 9.5 .63
Asylum-seekers with disabilities must enjoy the rights included in these Guidelines without discrimination. This may require States to make “reasonable accommodations” or changes to detention policy and practices to match their specific requirements and needs. A swift and systematic identification and registration of such persons is needed to avoid arbitrary detention; and any alternative arrangements may need to be tailored to their specific needs, such as telephone reporting for persons with physical constraints. As a general rule, asylum-seekers with long-term physical, mental, intellectual and sensory impairments should not be detained. In addition, immigration proceedings need to be accessible to persons with disabilities, including where this is needed to facilitate their rights to freedom of movement.
Guideline 9.6 .64
Older asylum-seekers may require special care and assistance owing to their age, vulnerability, lessened mobility, psychological or physical health, or other conditions. Without such care and assistance, their detention may become unlawful. Alternative arrangements would need to take into account their particular circumstances, including physical and mental well-being.
European Prison Rules
Prison work shall be approached as a positive element of the prison regime and shall never be used as a punishment.
Prison authorities shall strive to provide sufficient work of a useful nature.
As far as possible, the work provided shall be such as will maintain or increase prisoners’ ability to earn a living after release.
In conformity with Rule 13 there shall be no discrimination on the basis of gender in the type of work provided.
Work that encompasses vocational training shall be provided for prisoners able to benefit from it and especially for young prisoners.
Prisoners may choose the type of employment in which they wish to participate, within the limits of what is available, proper vocational selection and the requirements of good order and discipline.
The organisation and methods of work in the institutions shall resemble as closely as possible those of similar work in the community in order to prepare prisoners for the conditions of normal occupational life.
Although the pursuit of financial profit from industries in the institutions can be valuable in raising standards and improving the quality and relevance of training, the interests of the prisoners should not be subordinated to that purpose.
Work for prisoners shall be provided by the prison authorities, either on their own or in co-operation with private contractors, inside or outside prison.
In all instances there shall be equitable remuneration of the work of prisoners.
Prisoners shall be allowed to spend at least a part of their earnings on approved articles for their own use and to allocate a part of their earnings to their families.
Prisoners may be encouraged to save part of their earnings, which shall be handed over to them on release or be used for other approved purposes.
Health and safety precautions for prisoners shall protect them adequately and shall not be less rigorous than those that apply to workers outside.
Provision shall be made to indemnify prisoners against industrial injury, including occupational disease, on terms not less favourable than those extended by national law to workers outside.
The maximum daily and weekly working hours of the prisoners shall be fixed in conformity with local rules or custom regulating the employment of free workers.
Prisoners shall have at least one rest day a week and sufficient time for education and other activities.
As far as possible, prisoners who work shall be included in national social security systems.
Untried prisoners shall be offered the opportunity to work but shall not be required to work.
If untried prisoners elect to work, all the provisions of Rule 26 shall apply to them, including those relating to remuneration.
Principles and Best Practices on the Protection of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas
Principle XIV - Work
All persons deprived of liberty shall have the right to work, to have effective opportunities of work, and to receive a fair and equitable remuneration, in accordance with their physical and mental capacities, in order to promote the reform, rehabilitation and social readaptation of convicted persons, to stimulate and encourage the culture of work, and to combat idleness in places of deprivation of liberty. Such labor shall never be of an afflictive nature. (...)
Member States shall promote, progressively and to the maximum of their available resources, vocational orientation and the development of projects of technical or professional training in places of deprivation of liberty. They shall also ensure the implementation of permanent, sufficient and suitable labor workshops while promoting the participation and the cooperation with society and private enterprises.
Principle XIV - Work
Member States of the Organization of American States shall apply all protective national and international standards applicable to child labor, particularly in order to prevent exploitative labor practices and to ensure the best interest of the child.
Extract from the 2nd General Report [CPT/Inf (92) 3] - Imprisonment
A satisfactory programme of activities (work, education, sport, etc.) is of crucial importance for the well-being of prisoners. This holds true for all establishments, whether for sentenced prisoners or those awaiting trial. The CPT has observed that activities in many remand prisons are extremely limited. The organisation of regime activities in such establishments - which have a fairly rapid turnover of inmates - is not a straightforward matter. Clearly, there can be no question of individualised treatment programmes of the sort which might be aspired to in an establishment for sentenced prisoners. However, prisoners cannot simply be left to languish for weeks, possibly months, locked up in their cells, and this regardless of how good material conditions might be within the cells. The CPT considers that one should aim at ensuring that prisoners in remand establishments are able to spend a reasonable part of the day (8 hours or more) outside their cells, engaged in purposeful activity of a varied nature. Of course, regimes in establishments for sentenced prisoners should be even more favourable.
Naturally, the CPT is also attentive to the particular problems that might be encountered by certain specific categories of prisoners, for example: women, juveniles and foreigners.
Extract from the 11th General Report [CPT/Inf (2001) 16]
(...) The existence of a satisfactory programme of activities is just as important - if not more so - in a high security unit than on normal location. It can do much to counter the deleterious effects upon a prisoner's personality of living in the bubble-like atmosphere of such a unit. The activities provided should be as diverse as possible (education, sport, work of vocational value, etc.). As regards, in particular, work activities, it is clear that security considerations may preclude many types of work which are found on normal prison location. Nevertheless, this should not mean that only work of a tedious nature is provided for prisoners (...).
Extract from the 9th General Report [CPT/Inf (99) 12]
Although a lack of purposeful activity is detrimental for any prisoner, it is especially harmful for juveniles, who have a particular need for physical activity and intellectual stimulation. Juveniles deprived of their liberty should be offered a full programme of education, sport, vocational training, recreation and other purposeful activities.(...)
It is particularly important that girls and young women deprived of their liberty should enjoy access to such activities on an equal footing with their male counterparts. All too often, the CPT has encountered female juveniles being offered activities which have been stereotyped as "appropriate" for them (such as sewing or handicrafts), whilst male juveniles are offered training of a far more vocational nature. In this respect, the CPT wishes to express its approval of the principle set forth in Rule 26.4 of the Beijing Rules, to the effect that every effort must be made to ensure that female juveniles deprived of their liberty "by no means receive less care, protection, assistance, treatment and training than young male offenders. Their fair treatment shall be ensured."
Extract from the 10th General Report [CPT/Inf (2000) 13]
Women deprived of their liberty should enjoy access to meaningful activities (work, training, education, sport etc.) on an equal footing with their male counterparts. As the Committee mentioned in its last General Report, CPT delegations all too often encounter women inmates being offered activities which have been deemed "appropriate" for them (such as sewing or handicrafts), whilst male prisoners are offered training of a far more vocational nature.
In the view of the CPT, such a discriminatory approach can only serve to reinforce outmoded stereotypes of the social role of women. Moreover, depending upon the circumstances, denying women equal access to regime activities could be qualified as degrading treatment.
Questions for monitors (26) Print
What percentage of detainees is in employment (sentenced/pre-trial/women)?
Are work placements allocated through an individual assessment as part of the sentence planning process? Are clear and transparent criteria used?
When working opportunities are limited, who decides on allocation?
How is a detainee’s medical and physical fitness to work assessed? Are detainees who claim they are unfit to work entitled to a medical test?
Is work linked to vocational training?
Do detainees have a choice in the type of work they will undertake?
Are detainees prevented or deterred from work through disincentives?
What different types of work are available in the prison?
Is work provided by the state authorities, private contractors and/or non-profit organisations?
If work is provided by private contractors, is this fully supervised by the prison administration?
Are there opportunities to work in the community? How are these allocated (clear and transparent criteria)?
Are maximum working hours set by law or regulation? Is there at least one day rest per week?
What are the average working hours (daily?/weekly?)?
Are schedules arranged to ensure that detainees who work can take part in other constructive activities.
Are work environments safe and appropriate?
Do conditions of employment reflect those of outside the prison (for example applying labour law standards and social rights, such as retirement rules and being included in social security system?)
Are local standards on health and safety at work applied?
Is work equitably remunerated? How are wages set and calculated - is this clear, transparent and understandable to detainees?
How are wages used by detainees (for personal use, as savings for release, compensation for damages related to their crime)? Do detainees have a say in this?
Are there indications that the least attractive work is done by detainees in situations of vulnerability?
Do persons with mental and physical disabilities have equal access to employment? Do the authorities take reasonable measures to ensure this?
Do women detainees have the same opportunities to access employment as men?
Is the working regime flexible enough to respond to the needs of pregnant women, nursing mothers and women with children?
Is a similar range of employment options with vocational value offered to women as men?
Are all children above minimum working age and young persons in detention who wish to work provided with access to constructive work opportunities?Are these linked to vocational training in fields that are likely to prepare them for employment, where possible in the community?
Are protective standards relating to child labour and young workers applied in prison work?