Often when I tell fellow prisoners of my reluctance to work in one of the many prison factories or so-called “job assignments,” they look upon me as if I have said something foolish. “Why?” they ask—as if having our labor exploited for pennies on the dollar, or for no wage at all, should be self-evidently acceptable. In answering their question, I explain to them my experience in the Seminole County Jail in Wewoka, Oklahoma.
My First Bid
For twenty-three months I was trapped in that hellhole, fighting for my life on a capital murder charge. It had no commissary. No TV or radio. No outside cell activity. No library. Nothing. We were housed six to a cell and all we had were our bunks, a few card games, and what few books we could get our hands on. Lunch was reheated for dinner and, needless to say, the food was terrible. So terrible that, almost twenty-five years later, I can still taste that stale Thursday morning breakfast. It was degrading; an army ration of dehydrated ham and egg. Mixed with a little hot water, it swelled up like dry dog shit on a rainy summer day. After flushing it down the toilet for about six months, I finally relented. When you lose thirty pounds from starvation, you begin to acquire a taste for this sort of shit.
Of course, the “trustees” were allowed to watch TV, listen to the radio, and use the soda machine upstairs in the courthouse. (By “trustees,” I mean inmates whose work detail included the duty to supervise the labor and movement of other prisoners.) Every now and then, the jailor would even allow one of them to go across the street to the Dollar General to purchase candy, underwear, deodorant, or some other miscellaneous item that seemed to make life in that shithole more tolerable. (In case you’re wondering, the only clothes the jail provided were the oversize bright orange jumpsuits; no coats, underwear, etc.) They also were allowed a hug and kiss from their visitors and, on the weekends, they worked maintenance on the courtyard.
As for the rest of us, we were allowed nothing. Old cornbread, wrapped in some toilet paper, was the only thing we had to eat that kept our stomachs from growling at night. For twenty-three months, I was forced to live under those conditions, wanting nothing besides freedom, and I found myself willing to slave just to get a small taste of it. Man, how I wished to be a “trustee” during those days. Yet because I was charged with first-degree murder and would later face a death penalty trial, there would be no listening to country music or enjoying the sliver of mobility awarded to trustees.
Eventually my perspective evolved. I learned to place the so-called “perks” of prison labor in proper perspective. They were but a distraction, misplaced values and desires I had yet to conquer—things that I had been manipulated to hold in esteem but which, with the exception of food and exercise, were not necessary to sustain life. They were but a carrot on a stick, an inducement used to exercise power over my being by misleading me to believe they were privileges. Yet because I could not value a privilege I did not have, or be made content by it, the power my captors sought to exercise over me was ineffective. This enabled me to see my situation for what it truly was—a grave injustice—and respond accordingly. Instead of submitting to the distraction and attempting to ameliorate the harsh conditions of my incarceration with an illusive perk, I learned how to use those conditions as a source of motivation to fight for my freedom and just treatment.
In short, I TURNED UP! Food trays were thrown at the jailers and trustees. Mattresses burned. The entire jail flooded, and the power short-circuited. I fired attorneys left and right and began the process of learning how to represent myself in court. Ultimately I won and was back on the streets in thirty-six months.
My Second Bid
Years later, when I was committed to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in 2002, one of the first of my many cellies attempted to school me on the hustle and perks of prison work assignments. The perks, he explained, ranged from something as simple as stealing extra food from the kitchen to manipulating staff for sex and other “contraband.” Indeed, the inducement to work seemed to have its advantages.
However, as he explained all of this, I could not help but think that while he meant no harm with his advice, he was thinking ass-backwards. At this point, he had done almost twenty calendar years. And what he was kickin’ to me was hustling to be content with his life in prison, with being “penitentiary rich.” As time passed and we became better acquainted, I pointed out to him that neither the “perks” nor anything he had hustled for in almost twenty years of incarceration had purchased his freedom, or created any kind of financial stability either inside or outside these walls. I explained that hustling in prison, more so than hustling on the bricks, is short-lived. It’s corner hustling at its worst, where snitching is at an all-time high and the hustlers, more often than not, wind up in the “hole” (solitary confinement) with more time and restrictions than they started with—and, most defeating, having given their hustle stacks back to the canteen or their own habits.
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Despite having explained all this, none of it seemed to register with him or the countless other prisoners with whom I spoke. In time, I observed it wasn’t even about the hustle and perks for most prisoners. Many were simply looking for an escape from the monotony of an otherwise drab existence. Prisons are idle and mundane places. They are isolating. And the majority of us do not have the fortune of frequent, or any, interaction with the outside world. Therefore, to be able to get out of the cell to work, especially in a maximum-security setting, and to be able to fraternize with other inmates or staff—especially those staff who are comfortable sharing their life experiences, which many prisoners have yet to have, if they ever will—is rewarding in and of itself.
Breakin’ the Chains
This brings me to my central argument, derived from decades of experience organizing side-by-side with my fellow prisoners: To effectively challenge carceral violence, we must embrace a Black abolitionist politic that is defined both against “work” and against identifying ourselves as “workers.” As Frank B. Wilderson III and other Black Studies scholars have shown, there are fundamental differences between the political category of the “worker” and that of the “slave.” The worker is exploited at best, yet only shot, brutalized, or imprisoned when they engage in sabotage or forceful strike. By contrast, the slave is the object of gratuitous violence as a perpetual structural constraint.
Having been rendered civilly dead by U.S. law, I am to the state as the slave was to the plantation master, subject to the same relation of coercive violence and enveloping terror. Every movement I make carries with it the possibility of the authority’s lash. I am the bodily raw material that gives the prison–industrial complex purpose and social meaning. From this position, the act of naming myself—a slave held captive by the state—as “worker” displaces the gravity of my situation, obscuring the nature and extent of carceral violence. Further, as I have attempted to show in this essay, prison work assignments, presented to us as privileges, serve to lure us into conformity with the prison’s disciplinary regime, amounting to complicity and participation in the production of our own continued enslavement.
When attempting to organize as the worker-on-strike instead of the slave-in-revolt, prisoners face two essential dilemmas. First, a prison strike must be organized differently than other united workplace actions, requiring a far greater level of solidarity from those who are not in our position (non-imprisoned people). If our goal is to clog the arteries of the prison regime, it might be more effective to choose methods that interrupt the prison’s reproduction from the outside. While we are staging sit-ins, boycotts, stoppages, and refusing trays inside, free-world activists can occupy the offices of a Department of Corrections, stage protests at a prison warden’s private house, or stage sit-ins in the buildings of government institutions and corporations. In short, free-world activists must assume more of the risks. They must engage in strategic civil disobedience that directly (not just symbolically) disrupts the smooth functioning of the prisoncrat’s political-industrial machine.
Second, and more fundamentally, the category of the “worker-on-strike”—whose struggle proceeds on the terrain of labor/economics/wages—fails to grasp the culturally specific function of captivity in the production of U.S. (racial) freedom and (white) civilizational ascendancy over the wretched of the earth. In the antebellum South, plantation slavery was not only an institution for the production of material goods at a cheap cost for the ruling class. It established the very structure through which white freedom was, and is, made legible. The machinery of slavery was foundational to the non-slave’s experience of freedom. In fact, white freedom and life have always been produced in opposition to Black unfreedom and death. Our struggle, then, cannot be waged on solely, or even primarily, economic terrain. It must aim first and foremost to abolish the white supremacist carceral apparatus that cages, separates, and disappears us from our communities.
The true social significance of the Thirteenth Amendment penal exception (authorizing slavery as punishment for a crime) can only be fully understood when we consider the ways in which our political and economic institutions actively work to create criminogenic conditions. The prison itself does this in large part through starvation. When circumstances are such that a human being is compelled to steal food from the kitchen in order to compensate for what is not on our trays—or when circumstances, due to our meager pay (or no pay at all), do not afford us the means to make ends meet—the structural environment reinforces a belief that we must resort to some sort of criminal(ized) and/or deceptive behavior to accomplish our goals. The effect is to diminish social solidarity, intensify generalized distrust and paranoia, and enhance the capacity of the prison to police our behavior and impose punishments.
Philosopher Raymond Aron once wrote, “Man is essentially a creature who works; if he works under inhumane conditions, he is dehumanized, because he ceases to perform the activity that, given proper conditions, constitutes his humanity.” Work not only loses its human quality where made detestable by slavery, but also alienates the prisoner and prevents him/her from gaining the value of work ethic. A central contradiction of prison life, then, is that to realize the true value of work—that is, the dignity and self-improvement that come from freely doing and making things in community with others—we have no choice but to first reject the worker identity, at least in the twisted, degraded form it has assumed under present carceral conditions.
Image: BP Miller/Unsplash