8 Things to Know About Work Release

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Freelance Writer & Nonprofit Information Officer
May 19, 2024 at 1:9AM UTC
Mass incarceration in the United States is one of the most significant problems facing the nation. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the U.S. houses around 21% of imprisoned people in the world (2.3 million), even though it only makes up around 4.4% of the world’s population. And even though black people in the U.S. only make up 13% of the population, they are over-represented in incarceration facilities at 40%. Once someone has been imprisoned, the likelihood that they will return to some form of incarceration, due to parole violations, debt or repeat offenses, skyrockets. As a small reprieve, there are programs that attempt to reduce rates of incarceration and reconviction. 
The way some incarceration systems in the U.S. work is that you do a certain amount of time, then have a period where you are still an inmate but part of a work-release program, a halfway house, a volunteer opportunity or something on “the outside” so you can begin acclimating to life outside of incarceration. In certain cases, these programs also involve people who would otherwise have been given a sentence if they had not agreed to participate in the prescribed program. 

What is work release? 

Work release can refer to a few different things. It may be:
  • A program used as an alternative sentencing option, 
  • A program that helps people retain their old jobs while completing jail sentences or 
  • A program for those nearing the end of their sentence to transition out of incarceration.
Some work-release programs allow participants to stay in their homes during the workweek. Others require you to go back to your detention facility or stay at a specific work release center. Many work-release programs require you give a certain amount of your paycheck to the program. Some programs allow participants furloughs to visit with family. 

How does work release from jail work?

Since jail sentences are typically shorter than prison sentences, often aren’t for violent crimes and are probably closer to an inmate’s home, work release from jail often involves a participant retaining their old job while completing their sentence. Rules differ between states and incarceration facilities, but there are likely conditions you must meet such as the amount of time you held your job before sentencing, the length of your sentence and the type of job you hold. Many work release programs won’t allow participants to work in restaurants serving alcohol, for example. 

How long can you be in work release?

The length of a work-release program completely depends on the individual’s situation and the program in question. In alternative-sentencing work-release programs, it is common to spend a year living in a facility and following the program rules. In work release from jail, you often cannot obtain work release unless your sentence is more than 30 days. In transition work-release programs, imprisoned individuals can sometimes join up to 29 months before the end of their sentence, but this is rare as there is often a lack of beds and priority is usually given to those who have less than a year left on their sentence. It is common to spend 6-12 months in a work-release program if you are accepted into one. 

The pros of work release.

With work-release programs, participants can avoid jail or lessen the impact of their jail sentence on their future or, in the case of transition programs, start paying back prison-related debt and gain time in a non-incarceration-related community. Transition work release programs provide inmates with opportunities to build their resume, re-enter their community or build one, and establish financial savings prior to release. Having money prior to release is important, as many people find themselves in terrible debt upon leaving incarceration, due to related fees and fines. People who participate in work release programs often get hired more quickly after release and make more money in the months following their release.

The cons of work release.

Some work-release programs accept you but require you find a job within a certain amount of time, often without assistance, and if you don’t, it’s back to where you started. Some work release programs even require you to quit your job if it doesn’t end up meeting strict guidelines and then can kick you out of the program for not having a job. According to the work release threads on many online forums, if you find a job, the work is often physically terrible, dangerous and underpaid. Participants spend upwards of 50% of their paycheck to room and board and rarely make more than minimum wage to begin with. But what past participants often come back to is that for people that the country has marked “second-class citizens” who aren’t making any money in prison, work release is the best chance an inmate is likely to get if they don’t want to return to some form of incarceration. 

What is a work release violation?

Work-release violations depend on the state, the incarceration facility, the work-release program and the related department of justice. Like parole, work release is seen as “probationary” and participants are expected to be on their best behavior at all times. If you’re not, you will likely not be able to stay in the program. Violations include breaking any law or pre-set jail or program rule. Depending on the severity, violations can be grounds for dismissal from the program, ineligibility for other work release programs going forward and an extension to a sentence. 

Do you get paid for work release?

Work release paychecks can be eaten up quickly between program fees, debts you may have accrued and sending money home. But the positions work-release participants hold are real jobs, in real companies, with real paychecks. 

Who hires work release participants? 

Both public and private employers hire people on work release, an employer just has to satisfy certain requirements such as distance from the work release center. Often, work release participants must find their own employment, and their job search may look similar to a non-incarcerated citizen’s, just stricter on location. Some job-search sites offer sections for people looking for work-release jobs. 

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