Physically, prisons are generally designed to keep people in. Operationally, however, everything that takes place inside a prison is designed to get people back out. Considering that, in the United States, 95% of all prisoners will eventually be released, it makes some amount of sense to invest a little in enabling this population to stay out of trouble once they become civilians again. Having decent job is a pretty standard prerequisite for that.
One of the great features of most prisons is that they are, in many ways, self-sustaining. Enterprising correctional facilities have long taken advantage of this fact to turn routine maintenance into a programming opportunity: that is, teaching inmates the combination of mental habits, self-determination, and practical skills necessary to not only survive prison, but become valuable members of society upon release. So while they keep the prison operating, inmates also have the chance to invest in their own return to free society.
Not every inmate qualifies for vocational training (only about one-third of all inmates have the basic education and temperament considered necessary), but those to do have a surprising variety of learning and earning opportunities to choose from while in prison.
10. Custodial Engineering
Yes, prisons need janitors, and routinely put their inmate population to work cleaning up after themselves. But training in the janitorial arts can become a lot more nuanced than simply pushing a mop or broom.
Some prisons actually double as wastewater treatment facilities, operated by inmates who are trained on the equipment and chemistry necessary to turn your toilet flushings back into sparkling clean potable tap water. Once the inmates are released, they find their sanitation skills very much in demand by the civilian population, enabling them to earn anywhere from $19 to $29 an hour at sewage treatment plants and other wastewater management facilities.
Prisoners who learn the finer points of cleaning up messes can also become certified in biohazard removal. This is an essential skill in places prone to the leakage of bio-waste (very often bodily fluids), which means certified parolees can find work in hospitals, or even helping police clean up crime scenes.
Criminologists around the world have learned that it is much cheaper to educate prisoners than to incarcerate them. That is why basic education is offered in the overwhelming majority of prisons, as well as being a key prerequisite for any further job-specific training.
Beyond the GED, however, enabling inmates to earn college credits is still controversial—in part because academic access is subsidized by the state. So while American prisons and universities have broadened access to university education to just about one-third of all inmates in the U.S., it is a standard feature of prison in European countries like Finland. Nevertheless, aspirational inmates everywhere are being granted access to computers, and by extension, to online degree programs while doing time.
Falling short of achieving a complete college education, American inmates still have the opportunity to complete core classes, then sit a certification exam upon release, in order to earn whatever credential they are pursuing. This combination of rudimentary education and access to higher-ed opportunities enables the most self-starting of inmates to start small businesses of their own—often with an aim to provide work for other ex-cons struggling to find employment.
Specifically, inmates (typically from the western United States) have the opportunity to train and deploy as rural firefighters. The program is especially significant in California, where seasonal droughts mean that “Wildfire Season” is just as anticipated as Spring and Winter are elsewhere. There, as many as 4,000 inmates—constituting nearly a third of all forest firefighters—deployed to battle wildfires during the height of the season.
While commentators like to point out that regulations prevent incarcerated workers from earning as much on the job as their counterparts (firefighters make $2 an hour, double the norm for prison work), inmates volunteer for the training and deployment, and far from seeing themselves as abused or taken advantage of, take great personal pride in their contribution.
The job sees them battling the blazes alongside military troops, civilian volunteers, and even foreign specialists who travel to vulnerable regions for the season. Officially, the prisoners receive the same recognition, commendation, and ceremonial funeral rights as any other firefighters.
Utilizing inmate firefighters saves the afflicted states thousands of dollars, as well as aiding in mitigating the damage caused by wildfires. Although the training process does equip inmates to continue wilderness firefighting upon release, however, it is not a popular post-prison career choice.
The self-sustaining nature of many prisons often means they have prisoners growing their own food for their cafeterias, in regions where the climate allows it. In smaller institutions, the agriculture itself is more of a hobby and an element of a larger rehabilitation plan, but there are still many larger prisons with fully operational farms. Inmates working these farms can not only provide enough food to feed the inmate population, but sometimes participate in farm-to-table operations that send their crops to the general market for sale.
These programs are much more than labor distribution systems: participants learn nutritional and dietary information, as well as cutting edge ecological techniques for low-impact, sustainable agriculture.
In addition to growing crops and working with the seasons, prison farmers are increasingly working with livestock: cattle and pigs are routine, while fish farms to supply seafood are growing in popularity (and reputation among consumers). Not only does the system help the bottom line for participating states, but it behooves the inmate farmers to dabble in beekeeping, helping support the declining population of essential pollinators threatened by the use of commercial pesticides.
6. Heavy Equipment Operation
Some prison farms are large enough to warrant the use of large-scale farming equipment like tractors. Use of such machinery not only requires inmate mechanics to service and maintain them, but provides some the opportunity to gain experience as heavy equipment operators.
Even without the farm as an anchor, heavy equipment operation for construction and road maintenance frequently provides a training opportunity for inmates with an interest in big rigs. Work release and apprenticeship arrangements ensure the prisoners get appropriate training and supervision, enabling them to learn and perform jobs both within and beyond the prison.
While not every program will allow inmates to gain certification while incarcerated, operating this important equipment does help them pass their exams for licensing upon release, qualifying them to work in a range of industries that utilize these mega-tools.
5. Skilled Trades
Inmates get to do a lot more with their time on a work-release than making license plates or breaking rocks on a chain gang.
Because prisons do their best to be self-sustaining, prisoners have a myriad opportunities to be handy-men and women during their time. Just like on the outside, learning these sorts of skilled trades involves a master and apprentice working together; sometimes both are inmates, sometimes just the apprentice.
Nearly every modern correctional facility has electricity and indoor plumbing, creating a built-in need for electricians and plumbers, but that is just the beginning. Inmates, depending on the facility and professional partnerships, also have the opportunity to apprentice as welders, HVAC technicians, painters, landscapers, masons (bricklayers, not cult members) or carpenters.
The best part of these programs is that they tend to become available on a needs-driven basis. That means that, unlike your typical university, inmates only have the opportunity to learn trades that are known to be in demand; they don’t get trained for fields that don’t provide enough demand to justify the supply. The recidivism rate doesn’t drop much when ex-cons are only trained to do jobs that don’t exist.
So while skilled trades are always needed to keep the prisons running, inmates who receive training can expect their skills to still be relevant outside of prison.
4. Information Technology (IT) including Coding and Programming
Speaking of in-demand job skills: prisons are actively seeking to satisfy the demand for high-tech workers by training inmates in Information Technology. Despite the STEM-focus battle cry heard from boardroom to campuses, employers will still insist that there simply aren’t enough skilled IT workers to fill all the jobs required.
To make up the gap, educators are partnering with correctional facilities to train inmates on the jobs that employers seem to have the most trouble filling. From coding and computer-programing to computer repair, 21st century prisons are enabling inmates to fill 21st century jobs.
Of course, many of these occupations require inmates to have a higher-than-average level of education, or a profound sense of motivation and self-discipline that, in prison, may not be entirely the norm. Fortunately, there are training opportunities that take greater advantage of the backgrounds and skillsets of prisoners, without marginalizing them to criminal careers.
The plane crash that was “Scared Straight” may have made a parody of using criminal offenders to warn-off at-risk youths, but the foundation was sound. Not the scaring and the yelling, that part was a disaster; rather, the idea that people who have been through the corrections system are well-placed to counsel those exhibiting similarly criminal behavior.
The most viable alternatives to incarceration involve some form of education, and rehabilitation. Naturally, going through the corrections system tends to make offenders much more enthusiastic about such alternative programs. Giving prisoners the opportunity to study rehabilitative careers makes the most of their experiences, and enables them to share their perspectives constructively.
Drug users understand the physical and emotional turmoil of addiction; inmates understand the factors that lead to criminal activity; parolees understand the challenges of unlearning anti-social habits and finding a sustainable role in society. Whatever their background, prisoners with proper training can make the most effective counselors, especially as drug and rehab specialists. Through work-release mentorships and distance-education courses at partnering universities, prisoners can learn the skills and knowledge necessary to pursue certification upon release.
2. Animal Training
In prisons where this is an option, it is usually “the” top choice for vocational rehab.
That is because in addition to learning marketable skills like pet-care, obedience training, or preparing companion animals, inmates receive the psychological benefits that come from caring for animals. Working with animals can help prisoners better cope with their own emotional issues, stemming from incarceration or fear from an anticipated release. The high level of accountability involved helps recondition inmates and forces them to develop basic elements of reliability needed in any job. For the huge proportion of prisoners who lack basic education, this kind of personal development can be invaluable.
While all animal training involves teaching many of the same skills and routines that prisoners themselves are compelled to learn, no program has a more perfect symmetry to corrections than the Humane Society’s Prison Pals.
In essence, this program works the same way as prison: participants learn the skills and habits necessary to get along with others and stay out of trouble. Only in this case, prisoners are the ones doing the teaching. Inmates work with anti-social, aggressive, or neglected animals that are classified as un-adoptable, in order to re-socialize them and help them cope with life with other animals, or an adoptive family.
Through the Prison Pals program, animals who might otherwise be euthanized (because they can no longer be housed and no one wants to adopt them) are instead trained and returned to the Humane Society, to be adopted into a permanent home.
1. Culinary Arts
Every prison has a kitchen. That means in any given facility, the inmates will have an opportunity to learn basic culinary skills. While in some cases that simply entails opening cans and operating microwaves, in other cases that involves studying world cuisines, developing menus, operational skills like budget, sanitation, and plating, as well as proper knife-handling technique.
Partnering with local restaurants and colleges gives inmates in some programs the opportunity to learn from professionals and gain exposure to a wider array of dishes and skills than the standard prison cafeteria. It may not be glamorous and it certainly doesn’t always pay well, but the restaurant industry is always hiring. No other set of skills is so universally in demand as those that belong to food service.
And, because it is common to find prejudicial hiring practices among other fields and more public professions, learning to thrive in the back-of-house environment of a cafeteria or restaurant helps keep former inmates where society tends to prefer them: out of sight. Kitchens are often a refuge for drug-addicts, illegal immigrants, and ex-cons; the only reliable source of employment when all alternatives are out of reach.