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Work and wages in prison
The first briefing from Nacro's justice exchange looks at work and wages in prison

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Justice Exchange

The Nacro Justice ExChange is a network of people who have been in contact with the criminal justice system and received support from Nacro with their resettlement journey, including people who are currently in prison, or have previously served a prison sentence. They share the same goal: Using their experiences to inform those in power of what the issues are, and to influence the development of criminal justice policy to ensure that it works better for society, communities, families, and the individuals caught up in the system.

The Justice ExChange proposes practical solutions based on lived experience of the system. Last Friday (3 March 2023), they published their first briefing – on work and wages in prison.

Money in prison

The briefing starts by describing how money works in prison. entering custody and may receive money sent in by their family or friends, in addition to what they earn in prison. But others will rely solely on their prison earnings. Money can be spent in prison up to approved weekly limits depending on whether someone has been convicted or if they are held on remand.

The amount that can be spent is also dependent on ‘behaviour’ as assessed under the incentives and earned privileges scheme. People in prison buy phone credit so that they can call friends and family and pay rent for a TV at the rate of 50p per week. People in prison can also purchase a range of everyday items (including food) from the prison shop, known as ‘canteen’. In each prison there is a list of items, available for purchase, chosen to meet the needs of individual prison populations from a national product list of approved items. 

Prison wages

Prison wages are low, partly because people in prison do not have to pay for their bed and board: accommodation, meals, and basic toiletries are provided. However, the Justice ExChange (and many others) believe that prison wages are too low for people to be able to buy the basics, keep in touch with people on the outside and save for release.

The availability of work and rates of pay vary between prisons. The briefing includes some examples:

HMP Pentonville’s pay is £13.70, as of September 2022, for standard level IEP and £18.60 for enhanced. At HMP Send the average weekly wage for prisoners in full-time employment in July 2022 was £13.93, an increase from £12.40 in January 2022. At HMP Berwyn, mentors earn £18.40 per week (for 9 sessions) and kitchen workers are paid £23.50 for 14 sessions (7 days per week).

The cost of living crisis

The cost of living crisis has had an impact on people in prison as well as the rest of society. Basic items on canteen have got a lot more expensive. The briefing quotes a bag of rice going up from 89p to £1.20 and notes that many people in prison try to supplement their diet by buying additional (often more healthy) food from “canteen”.

The briefing notes that this has made it even more difficult for people in prison to juggle their very limited income between paying for phone credit to keep in touch with loved ones and trying to improve their quality of life by buying foods and other small items.


The briefing proposes a better, fairer, system for work and wages in prison that ensures that everyone can work to support themselves both during their time in prison, and on release. The Justice ExChange members set out a list of priority areas which it encourages the government to focus on:

  • Developing skills and earning qualifications: Making sure that work and education opportunities are available to everyone in prison, focusing on ensuring that people can develop the skills and qualifications that they will need on release. 
  • Improved use of ROTL: It needs to become the norm that all people in prison who are eligible have genuine opportunities to be released during the day to enable them to work in the community and earn a real wage.
  • A real working day: People should be provided with a working pattern that, as far as is possible, mimics the working day on the outside.
  • Fair pay so people can pay for the things they need: Establish a national pay scale for people in prison, reviewing current wages to ensure that people in prison have sufficient funds to buy the things that they need, keep in touch with friends and family and save for release.
  • Fair prices so people can pay for the things they need: In addition to establishing a national pay scale for people in prison, we must also ensure that the items that they can buy, and the phone calls that they make, are priced fairly and in line with prices in the community.
  • Saving for release: With a national payscale and increased wages, a portion of prison wages should be saved in a ringfenced Resettlement Fund. 
  • Priority for the best jobs in preparation for release: Introduce a system so that towards the end of an individual’s prison term they have priority for the higher paid roles with automatic saving of a portion of that wage in the resettlement fund.


Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here

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