This article explores the politics and practices of labor in two penal institutions for women: a maximum security facility for women in Hungary and a community‐based facility for women in California. Diverging from other accounts of imprisonment that tend to operate at either the individual or macroeconomic level, this article analyzes the concrete institutional relations of prison and complicates the assumption that they simply reflect the logic of the prison‐industrial complex. Based on years of ethnographic work in two very different penal systems, I describe variation in how prisons institute labor within and across institutions and cultures: the Hungarian facility positioned wage labor as a right and an obligation that formed the basis of women’s social relationships and ties to others, while the U.S. prison excluded wage labor from women’s lives so they could get on with the work of self‐improvement and personal healing. From the comparison, I reveal how prisons can both draw on and subvert broader social meanings assigned to women’s work, making it difficult to view prison labor as wholly exploitative or abusive. I also argue that refusing to allow female inmates to engage in wage labor can be a more profound form of punishment than requiring it of them. By juxtaposing the discourses and practices of work in two very different penal contexts, this article offers a critical reflection on the political economy of prison labor from the ground up.