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 everyday 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 contexts, 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.

Medical check-up

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.

Equitable remuneration

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; for example,  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.