Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

At State Correctional Institution Chester (SCI Chester) in Pennsylvania, the lowest-paying jobs pay 19 cents per hour, which is the starting rate for all non-skilled workers. Workers with outside clearance have the highest earning potential at 51 cents per hour. Other jobs include block workers, barbers, janitors and laundry workers. 

A potential benefit of working in a job such as maintenance repair is that you can acquire a trade and skill. A downside about working is that the prisoners’ labor is pivotal to the functioning of the prison, thus making the prisoner a facilitator of their own oppression. But being paid so few cents per hour, prisoners are forced to work under the constant threat of disciplinary action for any stoppage or refusal to work. 

Making 19 cents as opposed to 51 cents is of great significance for individuals who do not have financial support from the outside and must procure basic necessities such as toothpaste, deodorant, hair grease and lotion. 

Occupation is just one of the many socioeconomic factors for the prison populace. 

Sociologists and criminologists widely agree that economics is a key driver of crime and violence, and the prison environment is by no means an exception.

When the incarcerated person no longer has an income to contribute to their household, there is a financial strain that is placed on their family. In most cases, the prisoner’s offense is directly related to the financial inequalities that existed in the first place. Money is also spent on extraordinarily high legal fees as well as court costs and fines. 

Once imprisoned, the individual must choose between conforming to prison policy or taking matters into their own hands. The socioeconomics of prison is determined not only by pay, but in terms of the underground economy as well. The more net income a prisoner has, the higher they are in the class hierarchy, regardless of their source of revenue.

Beyond jobs, prisoners might make money illegally or in ways that are against corrections department policy. Such economic pursuits include selling drugs, extortion, making wine and loan sharking. Prisoners are put on trajectories toward this behavior because of the abysmal pay given to them by the institution. 

But income isn’t the only factor. Those who are known as snitches, molesters and rapists are at the bottom of the social ranking, as well as members of the LGBTQ+ community housed in male facilities. In addition to those with money, those with the most status are usually individuals known for rebelling against the prison administration, those whose cases are well-known, and in rare cases, celebrities. 

If you have high status, you may be given preferential treatment by other prisoners, who provide extra food, commissary items, cleaning supplies, wine and drugs, along with other advantages. 

Amid the harsh realities of prison life, a perk that might seem miniscule outside can actually be of monumental importance to a prisoner. These privileges gained through status allow the person to save money, which will raise their socioeconomic positioning even higher. 

Prison jobs and socioeconomic status can also determine the likelihood of a prisoner being released early, meeting their needs and providing support for their family. 

In many cases, this means that continuing to lead a life of crime is their best option.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Kenjuan Congo Jr.

Kenjuan Congo Jr. is a writer and activist, who has been in prison since he was 17 years old. He is currently incarcerated in Pennsylvania.