Hard Work-Work: Legalized Prison Slave Labor

Written by Inmate Contributor

September 9, 2015

Today’s blog post comes from Shawn Ali Bahrami, who is serving his 20th year in a Texas state prison (since he was 17 years old). Shawn has always proclaimed his innocence, and you can read his story here.)

Shawn agreed to write a post for us about the harsh working conditions of Texas inmates.


Group singing:
Hard work-work,
Hard work-work …

Lead man counting/singing:
and you – four-step
<the line steps forward>
Group singing:
Hard work-work …
I used to work at Mickey D’s,
Now I have to chop the weeds — four step

On time and in a straight line!” shouts the armed, gray-uniformed prison guard, who supervises his Field Squad of roughly thirty inmates from atop his snorting beast.

Hoe Squads1

“And if you can’t talk and work at the same time, then shut the fuck up, or I’ll write you a case!”

“Fuck-you, Bitch, and that case!” shouts back an anonymous inmate from the work-line.

“Alright, just for that, I want them aggies head-high, and anyone who isn’t flat weeding head-high gets a case.” The guard looks at his work roster and puts a mark next to two names.

The bunched-together, rhythmic, straight line of white-uniformed inmates swing their aggies/hoes in unison, doing work in the scorching Texas sun, yet moving with the precision of a school band.  

“One-two-three,” the squad hits the grassy ground three times, “and you — four step.” On the lead man’s command, the squad steps forward on the fourth count.

The Field Squad’s blade-tipped sticks lift head-high, then bang the drum of the ground, repeatedly and manually, they mow down all the waist-high grass in their path. Clods of disturbed, dry dirt billow into a cumulus dust cloud around them. Snakes shoot scared through the grass. Huge ant piles are sidestepped. Critters are pocketed and later taken back to cells as pets. The chorus of singing continues over the drumbeat of the aggies.

“Hit it high, hit it low, hit it, and you — four-step.”

The work-line of human locomotion reaches the end of their “cut” (section of grass/weeds).  The aggies become still and the work music stops.  Pelts of mucky sweat drip from disgruntled faces, knowing the end of one cut is not the end of the day.

“Deuce it up,” orders the guard.

In order to maintain an accurate and constant count, from the time we leave our living area in the morning, until the time we return at mid-day, paired up side-by-side is the only way a Field Squad travels. The heavily-breathing inmates move into quick formation, shoulder their aggies, and, deuced-up, march military-like to the next cut.

HoeSquads4 Hoe Squads3

Hello again, my virtual celly. I went to work today in what we call ‘the fields,’ so I thought I would provide you with a graphic but true snapshot depiction of the chain-gang, slavery-style work that is still practiced with southern pride in the 21st century in both Texas and Louisiana. We also pick various crops, but “flat weeding” (also called four-stepping) is the predominant work detail.  Now, don’t get me wrong, a part of me enjoys venturing beyond this “gated” community out into the open Texas prairies, where we work amongst the cows, creeks, trees, and beauty of nature. However, when we work in the slavery-style manner I just described, and for free at that, then yes, I am diametrically opposed to forced field labor, and the manner in which they make us do it.

Hoe Squads

To be clear, there are no physical chains attached to our limbs, but there are invisible, psychological chains pulling on our minds, and conditioning our thinking, each time we’re expected to line up to do pointless work (flat-weeding), that a riding lawn-mower or tractor could do, and hit the ground at the same time, while inmates sing songs from a different time period, all while an armed, cowboy-hat-wearing guard curses profanities and threats at us for the entire work day. In our civil, post-slavery society, there is nothing even remotely civil about this.

When it comes to civilians, the bold, blatant system of slavery officially ended with the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but the same amendment gave states, like Texas, justification for practicing legalized slavery on convicts, when it says “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except [here’s the key word] as a punishment for crime.”  That’s the loophole for the field labor we do without benefit of wages, for any job, in the Texas prison system. I’m going to jump out on a limb and say Texas is the only state that doesn’t pay its inmates for labor. I’m not talking about window dressing “pilot-projects” they’re experimenting with in Texas at some of the isolated factories on select units where they are paying their inmates for their industry labor (because they have contracts with companies in the private sector); I’m referring to us inmates who keep every unit functioning by working in the kitchen, laundry, necessities, education and library janitors, clerks, and various other departments. I don’t care what they tell you or what you might think, I’ve lived in these Texas prisons for 20 plus years now, and they are not paying us.

It gets worse, are you ready for this? Check out this nugget of truth. If asked, TDCJ will tell the public they don’t pay us, because instead they give us “good time” and “work time” credits. Okay, but it gets worse, it sure does.  Those of us doing time for aggravated sentences receive good/work time on the computer, but in reality, the time credits aren’t being applied to our sentences. You think I’m bullshitting you?  Here, let me pull out my latest time sheet, give me a second. Alright, here it is, look:

T.D.C.J — Institutional Division

Inmate Time Slips

Years   Month    Days

FLAT TIME CREDITED:        20         04         18

GOOD TIME CREDITED:     17         04          06

BONUS TIME CREDITED:    0          00          00

WORK TIME CREDITED:      9          07         19

* TOTAL TIME CREDITED   47          04         13

My full sentence is 40 years. Now, I’m no math whiz, but when my FLAT + GOOD TIME + WORK TIME = 40 years, I feel like should be released because I earned my good time and work time. When I busted my ass working like I did in the fields today, I wasn’t paid, so the work time I receive on paper should count and be applied towards my sentence, don’t you think? Again, I’m no math whiz, but for my total time credited, my time sheet says I have 47 years, 4 months, and 13 days completed, when my good work times are combined with my flat tine. That means I have over 100% of my sentence completed. But Texas says no, if you have an aggravated charge, we give it to you on paper, but our good/work time will not help you go home any earlier, so we don’t give it to you in reality. (There have been some cases pending in the courts for years, so thank God for jailhouse lawyers.) 

Here’s the funny part for those of you who don’t believe the ’system’ is just a little bit crooked. When those of us with aggravated offenses are granted parole, before we’re allowed to leave the Walls Unit in Huntsville Texas to be released, they, the authorities that be, make us sign over our good/work time that we earned, but didn’t earn (because we don’t get it). It’s either sign over the good/work time, or stay in prison – not a hard choice. Parole is a privilege based program, so no person in their right mind is going to stay in prison to do their full sentence when they have freedom staring them in the eyes just a few feet away. Where do I sign?

I have a strong work ethic; it’s ingrained in me and tightly interwoven in the fabric of my character. Whether or not I get paid in prison, I know no other way to work hard and to give my best effort (and then some.) I believe one of the ways to reversing or changing the criminal cycle is for us inmates to develop good habits while we’re in prison. Being a relentlessly hard worker is one of the good habits I have embraced and execute every time I’m called in to work a shift at the many different prison jobs I’ve held in prison. The fact that I have 9 years and 7 months work-time credited, shows that I have worked nearly half of my flat time in prison. 

There are guys who “beat” the system by faking ailments/illnesses, and are given work restrictions by doctors, so they don’t have to work. Then there are guys who flat-out refuse to work.  So it’s a shame that those of us — doing aggravated time — who do work, are not having our work time applied to our release dates. So we’re not paid, we’re not given work time that influences our release dates in any way, and if I didn’t have some pivotal people in my life who love and support me, I would be forced to, as we say in here, to ‘live off the land,’ by engaging in illegal activities to get what I need and want.

Not everyone in prison has a strong work ethic, not everyone cares about becoming a better man, and not everyone has family and friends who love and support them by making sure that when their incarcerated loved one puts their ID card in the commissary window, they will have money on their account to buy the items they need and want. But it shouldn’t matter if a man is a millionaire who committed a crime and now he is working in a Texas prison for free. It’s the moral principle that is involved here because if the state of Texas is going to bamboozle us out of our good and work time credits, then they should start paying us something for our labor so that men can wake up in this hopeless place with some measure of dignity and responsibility. The only incentive to get an inmate to work in prison shouldn’t be “go to work or you’re getting a disciplinary case.” This punishment paradigm isn’t teaching a grown man anything about rehabilitation – if anything, it’s dehumanizing and demoralizing him, thus making him worse off than when he came into the system.

As a footnote — and this is extra — the guards aren’t faring much better when it comes to the salaries they are paid. The last time I checked, a couple of years ago (it may have changed since then), Texas prison guards were ranked number 48 in the nation in salaries. And this is coming from a state, Texas, that was the only state to experience significant economic growth during the Great Recession a few years back. Now I could see paying the guards at the bottom percentile if Texas ran a small, low-budget prison system, but in terms of inmate population, Texas runs the #2 prison system in the nation, behind California. Once again, the numbers aren’t adding up, and you know something, I may be good at math after all (wink). No wonder both inmates and guards pursue illegal, black market “hustles” to make up for the pay they aren’t getting.

The rate of men in prison with either long sentences or life sentences is only growing.  I talk, sit, and walk among men who are never going home. Granted, they did their crime and now they’re doing their time, so be it.  The last time I checked, we lived in a civilized, progressive society and an inmate is still a human being. When a man wakes up in a prison and he doesn’t know where his next tube of toothpaste, lotion, hair grease, t-shirt, shot of coffee, or whatever commissary item he needs is going to come from, his time becomes even harder, he stops caring, he snaps, he hustles/steals, maybe he assaults another inmate or a guard. You see where I’m going with this? And yes, Texas gives inmates a generic, motel-sized toothpaste every 60 days. C’mon, really?

Most men with long sentences have been given up on by family and friends, and they have no one to support them. Hell, they can’t support themselves legally because Texas doesn’t pay usMen in prison are still human and have modest needs and wants that are only available in the monopolized commissary windows that the state – who will work our asses for free – doesn’t provide, but will penalize us with a write-up if we try to acquire the same items through illegal hustling and bartering.

You know the irony of all this — and I’m about to take you deep — there are Texas Correctional Industries (TCI) factories located on almost every unit. Each factory is responsible for making a different product/good to keep this mass machine of prison life running. From mattresses, sheets, and t-shirts, to paper, pens, and greeting cards, and from soap, and rubber shower shoes, to furniture, signs, and digitized maps. These low-overhead, free inmate labor factories make it all. Do you know many of these items and others are sold in the monopolized unit commissaries? No, I’m not joking. For example, the rubber shower shoes that TCI inmates make out of recycled tires and rubber sell for an outrageous price — are you ready for this? — $7 in the commissary. Recycled material and free labor, mind you, and they’re $7 a pop for inmates who are not paid for their required slave-labor. I bought the shower-shoe flip-flops I’m wearing in 2001, when a private vendor had a contract with the unit commissaries, for a total cost of $2.25. The TCI inmate-made t-shirts they sell us are $6.95 (just a regular white t-shirt) but when a private vendor provided them, they were $3 – $4. 

Let’s personalize this discussion and bring the entire subject full circle. Say a man has a life sentence and he works hard, for free, five days a week in a TCI factory making rubber shower shoes, but after his 8-hour work day when he goes to the dirty-floor shower, he is forced to shower barefooted because he doesn’t have any family sending him money and the state doesn’t pay him for his labor, so the same rubber shower shoes he makes for free, he can’t buy for 7 ridiculous dollars out of the commissary window. And you tell me the system isn’t just a little crooked.

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