There aren’t as many jobs available at the jail as there are at larger prisons. For women, the options are cleaning the showers and handing out meal trays. Men can have those jobs, plus working in the kitchen, the laundry, the print shop, the paint crew, or outside doing trash pickup and snow shoveling.
There are not enough jobs for all the inmates that want them. You earn something like a dollar a day, which for some inmates means they can afford a few candy bars and phone calls home without asking their families for money. But most of them say they want the jobs to keep busy. Anything is better than lying on your bunk all day or pacing the unit aimlessly.
The paint crew is an especially obvious make-work program, because the jail only needs so much painting. The hallways get painted several times a year, and to add variety, a different color is used every time. In the places where the paint gets banged up, you can see layers of tan over purple over teal over magenta over mint green.
Some of the guys signing up for jobs inside the jail are on disability on the outside, usually for a mental illness. I suspect some of them actually could hold a job but have managed to pass for more disabled than they really are. But I think some of them are able to function only in a very structured environment, where a job application consists of signing your name on a list and where you’ll have immediate punishment if you don’t show up for work. I suspect the process of applying for jobs (and being rejected from most due to a criminal record), figuring out the bus schedule, getting up every morning and making it to work on time, and not using drugs is too much for them.
But staying home isn’t particularly good for them, either, because “staying home” usually leads to wandering the neighborhood, which usually leads to relapsing on drugs. When I ask clients to tell me about a time when they were doing well, they almost always use the phrase “staying busy.” Either caring for small children, attending an intensive drug rehab program, or working. The causation might go the other way—if you’re not doing well, you lose your kids and your job—but I’ve never heard any client say they were just staying home relaxing and doing well.
Something like an expanded Job Corps might be a good idea for these people, basically offering the same kind of structure they had in jail (maybe including van pickups and drug tests). It would probably cost more than disability payments, but less than re-incarceration.
(While I’m dreaming, a quick link to the Danish open prisons.)