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

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. The hypocrisy is evident to those of us who are forced into the fields.

My days in the prison fields have been a 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. The guards also fall into the same role as my ancestors. I choose okra between a grandmother or her granddaughter. I’m forced to sing to entertain my captors. 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 like human lawnmowers and tractors. Our boss, a 20-year-old, decided to impress our coworker while we were hand-digging red potato. He yells, “Bend at the waist! No squatting!” Good body mechanics would dictate we bend our legs, not our backs. In this real-life bizarro world however, the opposite is enforced. Lisa is the victim today. I witness her beg another boss her half-century old to let her squat because of her back and knee injuries. Our boss gets off his horse and walks towards 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.

Lisa ran 20 feet from us the next day, as we marched towards the fields. A boss on horseback rides beside Lisa and leaps onto Lisa. He repeatedly bangs her head with his radio. Some girls wet their hair, while others cry in silence. I freeze again.

Later, Lisa will be referred to by her boss as a runaway and not an escapee.

While cutting tall sharp Johnson grass with a dull gardening hoe, I notice a “stick” move. Ruby, a woman also in the field, tackles me before I can run. I look up at the gun pointed 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 the time to be near a snake and a compass? Ruby saved me.

Another time, an intoxicated boss on horseback, smelling strongly of alcohol, dropped 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. Prison has taught me a vital survival skill: walking on eggshells.

After our fieldwork, we are taken back to ovens that resemble cells. As we enter, the guards distribute generic Tylenol. I save mine for breakfast. I add two ibuprofen and two teaspoons coffee grounds. To limit fluid intake, they are swallowed whole. Bathroom breaks aren’t guaranteed.

Both exhaustion and aches are companions. Calluses and hand blisters are signs that I am a field worker. My permanent souvenir is a chronic shoulder injury which swells, pops, and pounds. I’m lucky — carpal tunnel surgical scars are the norm for those who worked in the field for years. No matter what age, height or illness, everyone must work at the same pace.

We sleep on the concrete floor to combat the heat. Tap water is used to saturate my bra, panty, and sheets. To reduce noise and prevent insects from getting into my ears, I use earplugs. I position my fan so that it blows directly in my face.

I pray I don’t get sick. We don’t get sick days. Refusing work can have serious consequences, including restrictions on phone, recreation, store, and visit access. You could be sent to solitary confinement or parole denial if you continue to refuse.

Slavery is a deep rooted cause of incapacitation. Violence and terror work just as well today as they did 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. It is sufficient to show violence periodically to ensure compliance. The mere presence or absence of a firearm speaks volumes.

Even the list disciplinary violations appears to be copied from slavery.

Congregating is a violation. Example: A person is crying after receiving a phone call, and two people pull her aside so she can talk.

Traffic and trade are violations of the rule. An example: I prepare a meal to celebrate a friend’s birthday. We are not allowed to share food, books, or magazines.

Rule violation is not complying with a direct order. Example: Looking forward in the medical and commissary lines. We must be in line backwards.

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

Forced servitude is displayed in the most sinister way possible when guards drop a pen, or any other item, and then refuse to retrieve it. They impatiently wait for us.

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

Prison has made it easier for me to ignore the harassment, assault, stalking, and beating of women. We are taught to ignore loaded firearm horseplay.

My silence is rewarded. I am thus complicit in their abuse. This is how a system can continue to exist by making victims victimizers.

My chosen family is still my support system. Forging strong bonds is possible by working and living together. We are a community of vulnerable people who have survived intimate partner violence, childhood sexual abuse, substance disorders, self mutilation and eating disorders. We try to have each other’s backs. Our goal is for prison to be as safe as possible. Humor is our best weapon. Staff can discourage, punish and fear unity.

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 can I learn from experiencing so much physical labor that many pay someone to break their feet?

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. I also did not have to attend an outdated, compulsory, religion-based anger management course. If I had access to evidence-based, individualized resources, I wouldn’t have gone to prison.

Why not offer resources to stop incarceration Are prisons producing the kind of people you want to live with? We aren’t here forever.

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