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Working in Prison Fields Didn’t “Correct” Me, It Revealed the System’s Brutality

If one was paid to design a system that exacerbates trauma for vulnerable women, this would be the ideal model.

Part of the Series

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) mission statement explains its rationale for prison: “Public safety” … “promote positive change” … “reintegrate … into society.” During my 15 years of incarceration, I’ve never witnessed anything to support this view. Those of us forced to work in the fields experience the extremity of this hypocrisy daily.

My days of working in the prison fields have been an exercise in time-travel trauma. Triple-digit temps in a field of Black and Brown bodies, bent at the waist planting sweet potato slips, contribute to an overwhelmingly familiar sense of déjà vu. As I fall into the role that mirrors my ancestors, so do the guards. I pick okra between a grandmother and her granddaughter. I’m forced to sing to entertain my captors. The only white faces are armed on horseback. They scream expletives or address us by body description (“hey, big booty”), conviction (“hey, meth head”) or race (“hey, Español”). In all five of the prisons I’ve lived, most of the people who are permitted to work in the air-conditioned buildings and receive on-the-job certificates for parole are white. The prison job that doesn’t offer any certificates, though, is the field squad.

We are treated as human lawn mowers and tractors. Once, while we were hand-digging red potatoes, our 20-year-old boss decided to impress his coworker. He yells, “Bend at the waist! No squatting!” Good body mechanics would dictate we bend our legs, not our backs. But in this real-life bizarro world, the opposite is enforced. Today, Lisa is the culprit. I watch as she begs another boss half her age to let her squat, due to her knee and back injuries. Our boss climbs off his horse, walks toward us making vulgar sexual comments. By the time he reaches Lisa, he’s waving his gun and saying, “You want sore knees or a hole in the ass?”

I freeze. This is the first time I’ve seen a gun unholstered in the field, but it won’t be the last.

The following day, as we marched to the fields, Lisa jogs 20 feet away from us. A boss on horseback gallops beside her and leaps onto Lisa. He repeatedly slams his radio against her head. Some girls wet themselves, others silently cry. I freeze again.

Later, the boss will refer to Lisa as a runaway, not an escapee.

While cutting tall sharp Johnson grass with a dull gardening hoe, I notice a “stick” move. I run but am fortunately tackled before I can get far by a woman named Ruby, who is also working in the field. I look up into a gun pointing at me. Our boss holsters her gun and laughingly says, “You gonna get killed over a damn grass snake? Never run away from the prison!”

I wonder, who has time to be a compass near a snake? Ruby saved my life.

Another time, an inebriated boss on horseback, reeking of alcohol, drops his gun. Then he orders us to “pick it up.” Instinctively, everyone raises their hands. He threatens us with “refusing to obey a direct order” — a disciplinary infraction. He insults us and vows to call the parole board and tell them to keep us “all here until Jesus returns.” After what feels like hours but are actually minutes, his coworker returns the gun to him. For me, prison has refined a crucial survival skill: walking on eggshells.

After our field work, we are returned to ovens masquerading as cells. The guards distribute generic Tylenol as we enter. I save mine for breakfast, adding two ibuprofen and two teaspoons of coffee grounds. I swallow them all dry to limit fluid intake. Bathroom breaks aren’t guaranteed.

Aches and exhaustion are companions. Hand blisters and calluses identify me as a field worker. My souvenir is a chronic shoulder injury that pounds, pops and swells. I’m lucky — carpal tunnel surgical scars are the norm for those who worked in the field for years. Everyone must maintain the same speedy work pace, regardless of age, height, weight or illness.

To combat the heat, we sleep on the concrete floor. I saturate my panties, bra and sheets with tap water. I place ear plugs in my ears to serve a dual purpose of noise reduction and to prevent insects from entering my ear. I position my small fan to blow directly in my face.

I pray I don’t get sick. We don’t get sick days. Refusing to work has serious consequences including: phone, recreational, store and visit restrictions. Subsequent refusals can land you in solitary confinement and parole denial.

Incarceration is deeply rooted in slavery. Violence and terror are just as effective today as they were in the 1700s. You can’t coerce people into bondage without a system of violence backing it up. A daily demonstration of brutality isn’t required for obedience. A violence performed periodically is enough to ensure compliance. The mere presence of a firearm speaks loudly.

Even the list of disciplinary violations appears copied from the days of slavery.

Rule violation: congregating. An example: Someone is crying after a phone call and two people pull her aside to talk.

Rule violation: traffic and trade. An example: I prepare a meal to celebrate a friend’s birthday. We are prohibited from sharing food, books or magazines.

Rule violation: disobeying a direct order. An example: Facing forward in commissary and medical line. We must stand in line backwards.

Submitting grievances complaining about staff misconduct could win you a possible prison transfer and the label of “troublemaker.”

One of the most insidious displays of forced servitude happens when guards drop a pen or any item and make no attempt to retrieve it. Instead, they impatiently wait for us to.

Their motto: “You don’t like the accommodations, stop making reservations.”

Prison has conditioned me to ignore women being beaten, sexually assaulted, stalked and harassed. We are trained to ignore loaded firearm horseplay.

My silence is rewarded. This makes me complicit in their abuse. This is how a system perpetuates itself by turning the victims into victimizers.

Still, my support system includes my chosen family. Working and living together forge strong bonds. We are a vulnerability community primarily comprised of survivors of intimate partner violence, childhood sexual trauma, substance disorders, self-mutilation, eating disorders and untreated mental illness. We try to have each other’s backs. Our goal is to survive prison with the least possible damage. Humor is our weapon of choice. Unity is feared, discouraged and punished by staff.

Each day, I wonder: How does carrying rocks from one side of a road to the other, then returning them to their original side, help me “reintegrate into society”? How does holding bathroom privileges hostage in exchange for desired quota output assist me in making “positive change”? What does experiencing physical labor so excruciating that many opt to pay someone to break their foot teach me?

Nobody in this prison system, supposedly designed to “correct,” has ever asked me what resources I needed to aid in this “correction.”

I didn’t have to come to prison to experience abuse. Nor to attend an outdated, mandatory, one-size fits all, religion-based anger management class. If given access to individualized, evidence-based resources, I would have never come to prison.

Why not offer resources to prevent incarceration? Are prisons creating the type of people that you want as neighbors? We aren’t here forever.

If one was paid to design a system that exacerbates trauma for vulnerable women, this would be the ideal model. If the mission statement reflected TDCJ’s core values it would simply state, “We promote a system that encompasses the entire range of violence.”

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