Editorial: The Contradictions of Work

Work. On the one hand we hear from many prisoners how much they appreciate the opportunity to be productive, to make something, to be useful. Weve heard stories from prisoners about going out on road clean-up crews while in jail and choosing to stay in 100 degree heat even without water, just to be out of the cells and working. We heard from a couple of women prisoners that their gardening job was the one thing that made their time a little more bearable. Making things grow gave them the satisfaction of seeing their activity become objective, in a very real and immediate sense changing their world.

Women working in the upholstery shop at North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women
North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women is proud of women working in the prison’s upholstery shop. They learn to rebuild and repair furniture. Yet notice no protective masks. When the foam used in upholstering is cut, tiny particles are dispersed into the air. Trapped in the lungs, they can cause a condition similar to asbestosis. Urethane foam particles are also carcinogenic. The foam is flamable and once ignited produce a toxic gas, which can quickly kill. Is this what they use?

On the other hand, work in prison is an epitome of exploitation. Many prisoners are paid nothing.
Prisons could not function without this unpaid labor. Those that get paid start at 8 cents per hour and can get as much as just over a dollar per hour. Work is also an especially alienating activity. The actual work conditions are so punitive and vengeful that many jobs seem more like torture. For example, one woman prisoner was assigned kitchen duties. She had to carry big, heavy, hot pans of grits from the oven to the serving area. When she asked for potholders, she was given one. When she pointed out that the pans were too big to carry in one hand, that she needed at least another one, and not just a small one, but a full potholder that would cover her forearms, she was written-up for disobeying orders. She suffered burns on both arms as a result.
The joy of work is that you feel useful, helping somebody. Prisoners justifiably feel proud of working in the prisons optical shop or denture making jobs. The glasses and dentures help other women prisoners see and eat. But even this, which should be experienced as the benefit of prisoners own activities, gets spoiled by the prison authorities who put themselves in the middle. Medical neglect is very much a part of women prisoners lives and it also relates to the question of work in prison. One woman was told that the prison would not fill a cavity in her tooth. Instead, they would wait until her tooth rotted out and remove it. Once she had fewer than 7 teeth left, they would prescribe dentures. Thus even work that helps other women prisoners becomes a form of abuse because the women themselves are not allowed to determine when to provide this help.
As with every other wrong in society, prison magnifies the contradiction experienced in work. Work, especially in cooperation with others, is what most people want to contribute. Lack of control over what you actually do transforms work into a tool of oppression instead.