Filed under: Central, Editorials, Incarceration, Labor, US, White Supremacy
Jason Renard Walker is Deputy Minister of Labor for the New Afrikan Black Panther Party and one of the contributors to the Fire Inside zine. Here, he describes the experience of forced unpaid work in a prison kitchen.
Since the birth of the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC), now called the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), Texas has used a not so subtle tool of profit and anti-social control to exploit its captives via unpaid forced labor. This method, both grassroots scholars and many average laymen agree on, is akin to a benign form of slavery – thus to say modern day slave labor.
In fact Texas’ first form of prison management was on former slave plantations. Some of these prisons are still up and running, like the Huntsville Unit which opened its doors in the mid 19th century.
If it wasn’t for the induction of the 13th amendment which legalized slavery (as long as one was convicted of a crime and sent to prison) It would have been a hard bargain for prisons to profit off of the prisoners.This is because any unfair or below minimum wage pay could be challenged in civil courts simply enough. Prisoners could refuse to work in droves, which would send an economical blow to the prison industrial complex (PIC). This dilemma also made in prison labor unions, workstrikes, and organizing to achieve these ends a violation of prisons rules and a frivolous claim in state and federal civil court.
Texas revolutionized and dominated the art of exploitation and for profit prison management to such an extent that it became the pre and post Cold War poster child for self sufficiency and get rich for cheap schemes. Other state prisons began modeling their system off of this newly discovered scam. Texas was also the first state to operate a private prison.
In short it is here in Texas where it was first realized that (despite the methods and work conditions that killed prisoners) it is more fruitful to run a state prison system strictly through the means of being self reliant and at the cost of forced unpaid labor. This in fact occurred after a 1902 investigation revealed that prisoners were being rented out to farmers in exchange for currency. Farmers gave kickbacks if allowed to work the men harder (convict leasing).
In Don Umphrey’s The Meanest Man in Texas, he laid out a very good description on how rough Texas prisoners had it before and after the conclusion of the 1902 investigation: “Twice in the twentieth century there had been investigations into the TDC that had focused on cruelty and inhumane conditions under which prisoners were forced to work. Prisoners had substituted on skimpy diets; many had been beaten or worked to death. The cause of death for those who died at the hand of an overzealous guard was usually listed as natural cause.”
As I noted in an earlier exposé on forced labor in Texas, every function of the prison is run by or operated via prison labor – that is everything short of running the cellblocks.
But even this type of guard work was done by prisoners at one point. An example is noted in the ruling of Ruiz v Estelle that was filed by David Ruiz in 1972. His plan was to expose the grim nature of guard on prison and (guard provoked) prisoner-on-prisoner violence.
There was an act of state wide corruption by prison guards and their promoting the use of “inmate politicians” and “building tenders” to run the prisoner and control the prisoners in an unbounded fashion. Besides terrorizing the prisoners they were the ones who opened and closed the cell doors and other doors prisoners had to pass through.
The favorable results from the Ruiz ruling weren’t permanent and eventually forgotten about by the court system. But it did cause a shallow overhaul of how the prison was run, a benign change of policies and most notably a reform of the disciplinary procedures and process; which prevented the accusing office from being on the jury panel and punishment board, which ultimately always resulted in the prisoner being found guilty of an offense. And given maximum punishment.
While most of the prisons aren’t as violent as they were pre-90s, the work expectations and the work conditions are pretty much the same. This is just a fraction of the topic of slave labor.
CAPT FISHER AND HER PIG PROXY ON THE HIGH HORSE
Besides field labor, kitchen work is another daunting task that requires maximum strength and effort. Not surprising I was thrown in the kitchen with the task of working the pot room. This particular prison is among the top five biggest in the state. With that comes a big kitchen. And big responsibilities.
As I stepped through the entrance door the first thing I noticed was a pickett like office in the center of the kitchen. It stood close to six feet off the ground, so that those inside stood above and looked down on the laborers. Often laughing and pointing at mistake prone workers.
With Hitler-like tyranny, Capt Fisher and her all so faithful pig proxy stood in the window glaring at the workers. I took this as her attempt to ensure nothing was stolen or eaten. And the proxy’s attempt to exercise his privilege; while eating a plate full of bbq ribs, scallop potatoes and what looked like a marinara sauce.
After about a ten minute wait the proxy stepped out and handed me, what seemed to be, safety training forms. “Sign your initials in the highlighted areas” he said then went back inside with Fisher, who’d grabbed a plate of ribs for herself.
I noticed the forms stated that by signing my initials I agreed that I was properly trained. Due to any injury I suffer while at work being a disciplinary case, for unsafe work habits, I made the ultimate mistake of entering the picket, to ask for training.
“Hey you get out of here, can’t you read,” I was told. The door was slammed shut in my face and the food service manager, Mr. Briscoe, pointed to a sign taped on the door which stated that any problem we have we need to speak to one of the floor officers first before we try to contact the Captain. This is so that she’s not disturbed while gossiping, etc.
After Fisher left I was allowed to go in the picket to ask my question. “Oh man you gone make me train you,” Briscoe said who looked like he been in the kitchen 300 lb too long. To satisfy his laziness I signed my initials and was sent back to the pod.
THE WORK OF THREE MEN
My first week of work told the tale about how the pot room has been operating for quite some time – overworking prisoners. Once prisoner said they’d been complaining about this for months. Others quit when it was exposed that the lack of help was deliberate.
For this particular position we are suppose to have a total of eleven workers, but instead there is usually three or four of us. This results in each one of us doing the work of three men. This is a problem that Fisher and her ilk are aware of but like she stated “I know we working the shit out of y’all but you’ll get used to it.” I note that our assigned work hours are from 4am to 12pm.
The food is served out of cafeteria style inserts which we have to load on a cart from the four chow halls. We dump out the excess food; wash them and their lids; then put them on the racks to be re-used, large pots and cornbread pans are also picked up. Due to the large number of prisoners, the pans are always backed up while we’re constantly working to keep up.
No food break for us. The only opportunity we have to eat is whenever an insert comes through that still has scraps left in it. We are actually expected to pick out of the pans as we collect them and have routinely done so just to eat.
Just imagine hands of filth digging in and eating out of an insert full of bare pig bones in search of some that still may have a little meat on them. That’s us! It’s inhumane but seen as normal. Others from different stations will even stop by, insert chasing.
Just today, March 7th 2018, for one reason or another the cart used to pick up the inserts was gone. I believe this was a cynical act by someone since it was cabbage day and I was the one picking up the inserts.
This caused the work to be extremely difficult as I had to hand carry the inserts to the pot room. Those that contained cabbage were filled with its juice, making them heavy. None of the food service officers had any interest in locating another cart. I was told to “man-up”.
AN UNSANITARY WORK PLACE
The food that is cooked in the kitchen is not only served to the prisoners. There is an officer dining room (ODR) were officers, nurses, commissary staff, mailroom staff, and other civilians stop by to eat during their break.
Given that the pot room is lacking in manpower, kitchen officers don’t expect us to actually clean the pans according to policy. Their interest isn’t in exercising sanitary cleaning habits, but merely making everything look as if it’s clean. “Just rinse it off” I was told by the sanitary officer when I pointed out spoiled raw chicken stuck.
Greasy pans: those with week old chunks of raw chicken stuck to them; roach feces and a lot more that I won’t name are used to reissue food. Since the ODR has eloquently made food out of pork and chicken, I’m surprised none of them have contracted a food borne illness. Cross contamination between raw and cooked meat is common.
I’ve often had to run off large cockroaches, measuring well over an inch long, away from the pans. I’ve even had to scrape their feces off of the pans. Many pans I simply didn’t have the time to get to.
These pests are colonized throughout the kitchen and are obviously domesticated and used to human contact. They just stroll along and pay us no mind. As staff pay them no mind. Upon someone opening a box containing cans of greens, I saw well over twenty roaches run and hide. I’ve seen many find their way into the inserts that were being sent out. If you’ve ever had a bug in your food this is how they get there.
I must also remind you that this prison has a hospice wing. One which is for terminally ill prisoners e.g. those with advanced Hep C, AIDS, etc., so these unsanitary feeding habits may have an effect on those with low immune systems.
I believe there should be a surprise investigation by the health department because Fisher is promoting food service habits that can get prisoners as well as staff sick or possibly killed. Their effort to consolidate prison work is the root to all this.
Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win! All Power to the People
Jason Renard Walker #1532092
2664 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, TX 75886