Unlocking Potential: towards effective, sustainable, and ethical provision of work opportunities for prisoners and prison leavers

Donate to WPB


Context for the research              Research aims              Research questions              Project team   

This three-year international comparative project, funded by a private philanthropic foundation, commenced in 2022 and will conclude in 2025. It is researching prison labour and work opportunities for prisoners and prison leavers in Brazil, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. 

Context for the research 

Work opportunities can play an important role in supporting fair and effective prison regimes. Historically, prisons have found it difficult to offer prisoners high-quality opportunities. Work in prison often mostly consists of tasks to sustain or maintain the prison as an institution. It can be challenging for prisons to provide tasks with inherent rehabilitative or wider social value, and people released from prison sentences often face additional barriers to employment because of their sentences, for example because parole or other release conditions bar them from some kinds of work or pose other practical obstacles.     

Prison administrations have frequently tried to remedy these difficulties (and to offer prisoners more ‘normal’, ‘realistic’ working conditions) by partnering with outside organisations, such as companies, charities, and other non-state entities. These partnerships can extend the diversity of work offered to prisoners, and might also improve employment prospects for prison leavers. Such arrangements, and working in custody generally, are commonly claimed to benefit prisoners, by helping them to acquire discipline, skills, and a ‘work ethic’, even where other benefits are harder to secure. 

Historically, however, partnerships with outside organisations have encountered multiple resourcing and implementation challenges, and have been politically controversial. They generate reputational risks for organisations which might be seen to exploit cheap prison labour. Low pay in prison, and persistent formal barriers to employment such as those described above, mean that this appearance remains even when companies aim to provide training and other benefits to prisoners. 

Moreover, there are complexities and contradictions in the international human rights standards in this area. The relevant binding international labour rights standard, the International Labour Organisation’s Forced Labour Convention No. 29  of 1930, is nearly a century old. It protects prisoners from exploitation if they work directly for private companies, but permits states generally to suspend prisoners’ employment rights and force them to work, including for no pay, provided they have been duly convicted of a crime by a court of law. Meanwhile, non-binding ‘soft law’, such as the UN Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners, stipulates that prison regimes—including work—should whenever possible not aim to punish but instead to ‘resocialise’ or ‘rehabilitate’ prisoners. States may define for themselves what activities will achieve this end.  

The result, in publicly and privately operated prisons alike, can be that work of varying quality is provided to prisoners by outside organisations and by prison authorities, under a range of contractual arrangements. States can claim any of this work to be ‘rehabilitative’, often doing so generically. And the ILO Convention permits prisoners to be directed into work under terms and conditions which would be illegal in the wider economy. 

As a whole, the framework of international law and guidance is ambiguous, and may give rise to conflicts of interest, and makes it difficult both to identify and to challenge exploitative arrangements. 

Research aims 

Despite these complexities, ICPR’s recent research indicated that prisoners value work. Around the world, they  reported a range of adverse impacts when work activities were halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many valued the work on offer to them, for reasons connected with physical and mental wellbeing, and the difference that even very low prison wages could make to their daily lives. 

Our current research project aims to gain insight into how norms, values, and policies surrounding prison labour are understood by practitioners, policymakers, prison monitors, and partner organisations which provide work in prisons. The resultant evidence base will be used to inform and promote better policy and practice and improved collaboration between public, private and voluntary sectors in the provision of effective, sustainable, and ethical work in prisons.  

We aspire to identify examples of good practice and effective collaboration, and to identify lessons that can be learned from prison work provision in three countries with widely differing regulatory frameworks, prison systems, and political, cultural and economic contexts: Brazil, the United Kingdom, and the United States. 

From this evidence base, the project aims to produce tools for change, including a series of recommendations for governments, about the legal protections and minimum standards needed to balance the interests of workers and work-providers; and for partner organisations, about how to engage with prisons and provide work for prisoners, while minimising the risk of exploiting prisoners’ labour. 

Research questions 

The research will examine the issue of prison work in three countries - Brazil, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. It focuses on five primary questions: 

  1. What kinds of work opportunity are available to prisoners in the USA, Brazil and the UK, and how do they compare?  

  1. What legal and policy frameworks currently govern the provision of work opportunities and the regulation of prison labour in each country? 

  1. Does the international normative framework applicable to prison labour provide sufficient protection against exploitative and otherwise unethical practices? Does it present unnecessary barriers to engagement by non-state providers?  

  1. What political, economic, social, and other imperatives shape the kinds of work offered to prisoners, and what claims are made about the benefits of prisoners’ work? 

  1. What should work in prisons look like, and how do we get there? 

Project team 

Ben JarmanHelen FairCatherine Heard and Jessica Jacobson