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).