Improve the chance of finding work after prison by starting behind bars

Improve the chance of finding work after prison by starting behind bars
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It has been less than a year since President TrumpDonald TrumpHarry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' Man arrested for allegedly threatening to stab undercover Asian officer in NYC Trump says GOP will take White House in 2024 in prepared speech MORE signed the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, into law. But this month, he publicly announced an equally audacious goal for his administration to reduce the unemployment rate of formerly incarcerated individuals to single digits within the next five years. “Too often, former inmates are not considered for jobs even if they are qualified, rehabilitated, and ready to work,” President Trump rightly declared. “That is why we are taking crucial steps to encourage business to expand second chance hiring practices.”

The Bureau of Prisons announced its “Ready to Work” initiative as one of those key steps. The goal of this new initiative is to connect employers to individuals entering back into society and seeking employment. While this is a notable start, dramatically reducing the unemployment rate among the formerly incarcerated, which at times has been higher than that for Americans during the Great Depression, will take an earlier intervention.

One of the best ways to encourage second chance hiring of those with a criminal record is to give incarcerated individuals the opportunity to start working with private employers while they are behind bars. Indeed, to reduce the unemployment rate among the formerly incarcerated and in turn improve public safety, the administration should expand access to high quality and well paid employment opportunities behind bars with critical partnerships with private employers at all levels of government.


Offering employment opportunities to those behind bars can provide immediate and future benefits to those in prison and to communities to which they will return. While the typical prison job can pay less than one dollar per hour, those individuals employed through partnerships with private employers earn at minimum the prevailing wage for their work. Some of this money can be used for personal needs, financial obligations such as restitution, and to start savings accounts to be used upon release. While working inside prison or jail, individuals have a chance not only to learn new skills and find purpose, but to establish a proven track record that can lead to continued work for their same employers upon release.

Furthermore, communities also benefit when individuals work with private employers while behind bars. Research has shown that high quality and steady employment for formerly incarcerated individuals might translate into increased public safety through reductions in recidivism rates. When formerly incarcerated individuals quickly return to work, communities also benefit from the increased economic output and additional tax revenue.

Employment partnerships behind bars already exist, but for the most part are only available to a small segment of the incarcerated population. This is due in part to federal law not allowing goods made in prison to be sold on the open market, with the exception of goods produced through the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program, under which certain private businesses can establish joint ventures with prison industries to produce goods or services. Incarcerated individuals who participate are paid the prevailing wages in their sectors, with possible deductions made for taxes, room and board, victim compensation, and various expenses.

The program offers some of the highest wages for work behind bars, but only about 5,000 individuals are now employed through the program. Depending on the location, some private companies may be able to work directly with state or local corrections agencies to develop employment outside of the program. These programs are again all too rare. Whether through or outside of the program, incarcerated individuals would benefit from more opportunities to work with employers in high skilled sectors, which can lead them to steady and well paid employment on the outside.

Rather than simply connecting individuals to employment opportunities that commence upon release, the administration and the “Ready to Work” initiative should work directly with private employers to establish high quality employment programs for people behind bars. These programs should ultimately lead to a reasonable chance of continued employment when incarcerated individuals will enter back into society. By establishing these important programs, more incarcerated individuals will be able to reintegrate into their communities more smoothly, and businesses will have a greater opportunity to reach an untapped pool of talented people eager to prove themselves worthy of being thriving members of society.

As President Trump stated, “We believe in the dignity of work and the pride of a paycheck.” There is no reason to deny these dignities from individuals able and willing to work, even while they are incarcerated.

Emily Mooney is a criminal justice policy fellow with the R Street Institute.