California prisoners engage in some the most laborious work to provide over 1400 goods and services which support the daily operations of prisons in addition to supplying private capital with a cheap labor source via its Joint Ventures programs.
Women prisoners work in unsafe environments, endure extreme weather, and other slave-like conditions. Many are forced to work despite illness, disability, and age. Women who refuse or are unable to work, face extended prison terms. Most work without pay. If women are paid, many pay 55% of their income in restitution fees.
This issue of The Fire Inside is dedicated to all women prisoners who endure cruel, unfair, unsafe work environments, working without sick or vacation time, and work where retirement is not an option.

Working for the P.I.A.

by Edaleen Smith “Mama Sherrie”, Central California Women?s Facility
I’m writing from behind the wall in Chowchilla, CCWF. For the record, incarcerated women have no equal opportunity or support working in Prison Industry Authority (P.I.A.)
It’s no secret that they slave drive inmates all day long in uncomfortable positions. Spending 8 to 10 hours a day on the sewing machine, in chairs that are not up to date, at the end of the day you hurt so bad. On other stations you find women on their feet working physically so hard that they bleed from the pressure on the body, which must burn out.
It’s a disgraceful business, you work so hard on the sewing machines and you don’t even get minimum wage. You don’t feel your work is valued, because all you get is chump change. My pay is 30 cents per hour or $2.40 per day. I work my tail off for a little bit of nothing. The state takes out 44 (now 55) percent for restitution. It’s a form of abuse.
For real, we have no rights here. One day I had such a bad headache I felt dizzy. But I could not leave to get medication, my supervisor said I was needed on the sewing machine. There is no mercy or grace.
And you better not get sick or get hurt, because they will find a way to say you are in the wrong, write you a 115 and you may be out of a job. I had a stroke on the job and the only thing that mattered to them was that I stopped putting out the product according to their quota.
We don’t have any control over the working conditions, which are unbearable. It’s real dusty in the shop. The fabric is treated with chemicals that irritate your skin, cause itching, redness and bumps, which develop into sores and lesions.
You come in here with a sentence to do your prison time. But being a P.I.A. slave you pick up other charges. The money you earn is so little, it’s not enough for basic hygiene items or food you may need from the canteen?the prison does not supply enough of either. So you end up taking the boxer shorts, or anything, to trade for things to take care of yourself. When caught, you get more charges against you and you lose your job. You feel guilty all over again.
I don’t understand what are they teaching us? That it’s OK to work in sweat shops, be underpaid, and get new charges against you, otherwise you’re selfish? They make it as though PIA is so great?they hold job interviews, etc., as though it was an important position. But the pay is so little you might as well stay in and not work. The only real incentive to work is to earn half-time if you’re eligible.
I don’t see how it’s benefiting the women to work for the P.I.A. If they ever see the free world they won’t be good for anything in society. Their bodies are used up: swollen feet, misshapen behinds, irritated skin. Their minds are broken, too, from the mental abuse suffered every day. They walk around like human robots, machines waiting to fall apart. They are scared to put up a fight. I have no patience to deal with P.I.A. again. The inmates don?t’ help one another. It’s a disgrace. This is the reason the state keeps getting away with the things they do to us.
This is my story. Is anybody listening?

Legal Corner: Work provisions in Title 15

by Cassie Pierson, LSPC Staff Attorney, CCWP Advisory Board Member
Several sections of Title 15 apply to work and education in prison. Section 3040(a) provides that, ?Every able-bodied person . . . is obligated to work as assigned by department staff and by personnel of other agencies to whom the inmate?s custody and supervision may be delegated.? (Italics added). Subsection (c) provides that it is the classification committee that makes the assignments.
However, while a prisoner is waiting for an assignment to a specific program or in cases where the desired program has been temporarily suspended or if the prisoner has not agreed to participate in a program activity or even in cases where the classification committee has reached an agreement on the prisoner?s assignment, ?any able-bodied inmate may be assigned to perform any work deemed necessary to maintain and operate the institution and its services in a clean, safe and efficient manner. Operational needs may always override a program assignment.? (Title 15 section 3040(d); Italics added).
When it comes to job performance, the prisoner is expected to, ?perform assigned tasks diligently and conscientiously,? and may not to pretend to be ill or otherwise avoid performing your duties or encourage others to avoid their assignments. Moreover, if the assignment involves typing, filing or handling nonconfidential information pertaining to another prisoner, the prisoner must comply with the state Information Practices Act and are considered a ?special agent? of the CDCR and does not have the authority to disobey instructions. (Title 15 section 3041(e)(1) and (2)).
The following chart shows the pay schedule adopted by the CDCR:

Skill Level Minimum/Maximum
Hourly Rate
Monthly Rate
Level 1
Lead Person
DOT skill level 9
$0.32 / $0.37 $48 / $56
Level 2
Special Skill
DOT skill levels 7-8
$0.19 / $0.32 $29 / $48
Level 3
DOT skill levels 5-6
$0.15 / $0.24 $23 / $36
Level 4
DOT skill levels 3-4
$0.11 / $0.18 $17 / $27
Level 5
DOT skill levels 1-2
$0.08 / $0.13 $12 / $20

A prisoner?s pay is higher if she is working in a Prison Industry Authority (PIA) job. 22 of the 33 prisons in California have PIA industries. At two of the women?s prisons, CCWF and VSPW, the PIA industries consist of: fabric products, dental lab, optical, crops, laundry, and support services. At CIW, however, the only PIA industry is fabric products. (See related stories on pages 1, 3, 5, 7, and 14).
Prisoners can earn the most money at a job through Joint Ventures. Joint Ventures was established to promote rehabilitation by giving prisoners an opportunity to gain work experience and skills training.
Prisoners are to be paid a ?prevailing wage?. However, their wages are subject to the following deductions: federal, state, and local taxes, 20% for restitution (if applicable), 20% for room and board, 20% for family support (but only if there is a court-order or statute requiring support or the prisoner chooses to send money to their family; if there is no court-order or the prisoner does not want to send money to a family member, the funds will be deposited in the mandatory savings account), 20% to a mandatory savings account under the control of the CDCR. Prisoners leaving the Joint Ventures program who have a savings account balance of less than $300 can have the money transferred to their trust account. All money earned is given to the prisoner upon release. For prisoners who are serving sentences of 15 or more years, the warden can authorize an early withdrawal of a portion of the money from the savings account if there is more than $6500 in the account.

And I am you, too

by Deirdre Wilson, former prisoner, survivor
We are proud to publish this original poem read by the author as part of the event Our Voices Within: Out of the Shadows (see story p. 9)
I was free to run, jump, ride and play
    Not a care got in MY way
That don’t mean s**t
    When you’re a number.
I was proud, good in school
    Every advantage available as my tool.
That don’t mean s**t
    When you’re a number.
Captain of my sports teams,
    Full of hope, bright with dreams.
Those things didn’t amount to s**t
    When I was a number.
Went to a university, got letters behind my name.
Walked the red carpet,
    You couldn’t tell me I didn’t know MY game.
THAT?especially?don’t mean s**t
    When you’re nothing but a number.
Got hooked up with a guy
    Beautiful, and I thought “how enlightened! How brave and so wise!”
THAT was the first step…
    On a long, rough and painful road
    To… that number
Black eyed peas, crack’s evil squeeze.
    No, baby… don’t black-eye me again, please…
Ain’t no sympathy, victim or no
    Once you got that damn number.
Gave birth six times. Six miracles… stars that shine!
    I NEVER let anyone take that from me
    While I had that number
Take everything away! Go ahead?strip me bare!
Mock me, insult me, try to kill me
    With that soulless stare.
Your boots, your keys, your bars, your towers!
    I know what it’s like to spend years without flowers.
Titles don’t last
    Letters or numbers.
I am who I am!
And I am you, too.

Work that helps others helps me

by Sophia, CCWF
I work for Prison Industry Authority at the Dental Lab making dental prostheses for other prisoners all over the state. I started out earning 30 cents per hour. We get raised periodically and can earn up to 95 cents an hour.
Doing the job that I do here makes me feel good about myself because I know I am doing something productive. Just knowing that I am a part of making something that can boost someone’s self-esteem and make them feel good about themselves makes a difference to me. After someone gets the finished product, they are able to smile and being able to smile can help one feel like they can accomplish anything.
I have also received one certificate in Simplifying Posterior Dental Anatomy and I am working on my next one. That could mean one day getting a good job in a dental lab,
I am doing time but I refuse to waste it.

Editorial: New Millennium Slavery

by shawnna d. and the Fire Inside Editorial Collective
Just as newly freed Africans were convicted of minor offenses and then used as cheap (free) labor for industrial capitalists, poor people and people of color are similarly targeted and incarcerated at disproportionate rates today. Once incarcerated, California prison laborers are paid almost nothing for their labor. In addition they are regularly exposed to extreme weather conditions, abusive supervisors, and unsafe work environments.
Over the past two decades incarceration has become one of America?s top growth industries?an industry replete with Wall Street investors, trade exhibitions, conventions, and scholarly journals. Most prisoners work in running the prisons: as clerks, porters, or kitchen and yard workers and earn nothing or as little as 8 cents an hour.
Prison Industry Authority (PIA), the state agency that operates California?s prison industries, employs approximately 6,000 California prisoners and provides over 60 types of goods and services. Prisoners working for PIA make dentures, glasses, American flags, clothing, and office furniture used by state institutions. They earn from 30 to 95 cents per hour.
A few work for Joint Ventures?a collaboration between California prisons and private corporations which utilize prison labor?and they earn the ?prevailing wages.? These prisoners are required to pay toward their room and board, restitution, and mandatory savings. Only a small portion can be used for purchasing needed items from canteen. The corporations earn huge profits. Allwire Electronics operating out of CCWF reports $10-15 million in annual sales, yet pays most prisoner laborers a minimum wage.
The job skills acquired by those participating in prison labor programs, for the most part, are not marketable in today?s workplace. Prisoners working for PIA are using obsolete equipment and outdated techniques. Those few who do acquire a marketable skill, may still not get a job because of the stigma of being a former prisoner.
Although prisoner work assignments are supposed to be voluntary, prisoners who either refuse or are unable to work suffer significant consequences: they can be out of their cells for only 2 hours per day, they are allowed to spend a maximum of $35, they are ineligible to earn half-time credit.
Workplace injuries are common. Yet neither PIA nor Joint Ventures provide any insurance. If a prisoner insists on receiving medical attention, she will risk possible retaliation from CO?s and free world staff.
A history of prison labor
Prior to the emancipation of the enslaved African, penal institutions were to rehabilitate criminal offenders based on a belief that the offender could be reformed. At the close of the American Civil War, the purpose changed from rehabilitation to providing a virtually free labor source for capital. Emancipation of the slaves created a demand for cheap labor.
The link between slavery and incarceration is clear. Article thirteen of the U. S. Constitution states: ?Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States?.? Thus, today?s penitentiary is nothing more than a new millennium plantation and prison laborers are the new millennium slaves.
The ever-increasing incarceration rates could be reduced by investing in programs that prevent incarceration as well as those which promote successful re-entry to society. Shockingly, California spends over $30,000 per capita for incarceration and less than $6,000 per student for education. The average level of education for California?s prison population is 7th grade.
CDCR?s premise for prison labor is “to reduce prisoner idleness and violence, and increase successful re-entry for prisoners.” The reality is that in California, on any given day, the number of parole violators can easily exceed that of new commitments, which speaks to the failure of that goal and shows the ways poor people and people of color are targeted under America?s newest form of enslavement. The prison system remains complicit in this evolving form of new millennium slavery.

Editorial: La Esclavitud del Nuevo Milenio

por: shawnna d. y el Colectivo Editorial Fire Inside
Así como los Africanos liberados fueron convictos por delitos y luego usados como mano de obra barata (gratuita) para la industria del capitalismo, hoy la gente pobre y la gente de color son igualmente el blanco para ser encarcelada en cantidades desproporcionadas. Una vez encarceladas, prisioneros en las cárceles de California trabajan y no reciben casi nada por su labor. Se suma a esto que regularmente son expuestos a condiciones extremas del clima, supervisores abusivos, y un ambiente de trabajo muy inseguro.
Durante las dos pasadas décadas el encarcelamiento ha sido uno de las principales industrias crecientes de Estados Unidos. Una industria repleta con inversionistas de Wall Street, exhibiciones de comercio, convenciones y de publicaciones académicas. Muchos de los prisioneros hacen trabajo para que las prisiones funcionen: tales como empleados, cargadores, y trabajos de la cocina y de áreas verdes por lo cual no ganan nada, tan solo 8 centavos por hora.
La Autoridad de Industria de Prisiones /Prison Industry Authority (PIA), la cual es una agencia que opera las industrias de prisiones en California, emplean aproximadamente 6,000 prisioneros de California y proveen mas de 60 tipos de productos y servicios. Prisioneros que trabajan para la PIA hacen dentaduras, lentes, banderas de Estados Unidos, ropa, y muebles de oficina que son usados por instituciones del estado. Ellos ganan de 30 a 95 centavos por hora.
Parte del trabajo para Joint Ventures- una colaboración entre las Prisiones de California y corporaciones privadas las cuales utilizan la mano de obra de los prisioneros-y ellos asu vez ganan los ?salarios imperantes.? Estos prisioneros son requeridos de pagar su cuarto y su tablero, la restitución y a hacer ahorros obligatorios. Solo una pequeña porción del dinero puede ser usada para comprar cosas necesarias de la cantina. Las corporaciones ganan enormes sumas de dinero. Las operaciones de Allwire Electronics para el CCWF reporta ventas de 15 millones anuales, aun pagando a los prisioneros por su labor un salario mínimo.
Las habilidades del trabajo aprendidas por aquellos que participan en los programas laborales, para la gran mayoría no son de fácil venta en la actualidad en los lugares de trabajo. Los prisioneros que trabajan para PIA usan equipo obsoleto y técnicas desactualizadas. Aquellos pocos que aprenden habilidades vendibles, puede que todavía no puedan conseguir un trabajo por el stigma de ser un ex – prisionero.
Aunque el trabajo asignado a los prisoneros es supuestamente trabajo voluntario, los prisioneros que se oponen o se resisten a realizarlo sufren graves consecuencias: ellos pueden estar fuera de su celda solamente por 2 horas al día, ellos solamente están permitidos de gastar un máximo de $35 dolares, ellos son inelegibles para tener un crédito de medio tiempo.
Las lastimaduras y daños en el lugar de trabajo son muy comunes. Ni PIA ni Joint Venture provee ningún tipo de aseguransa. Si algún prisionero insiste en recibir atención médica, arriesgará su posible relación de CO?s y con el mundo afuera.
Un poco de historia del trabajo en las prisión
Antes de la emancipación de los esclavos africanos, las instituciones penales fueron creadas para rehabilitar criminales basados en la creencia de que el ofensor podría ser reformado. Al termino de la Guerra Civil en Estados Unidos, el propósito cambió de la rehabilitación a proveer una fuente virtual libre para el capital. La emancipación de los esclavos creo una demanda para la mano de obra barata.
El vínculo entre la esclavitud y el encarcelamiento es totalmente claro. El artículo 13 de la Constitución de los Estados Unidos: ?Ni la esclavitud ni la servidumbre involuntaria, excepto como castigo por un crimen donde la parte tendrá que ser debidamente convicto, existirá en los Estados Unidos…? De esta manera, las penitencierias de hoy en día no son nada más que una plantación del Nuevo Milenio y los que trabajan en ella son los nuevos esclavos.
Las cifras en aumento de los encarcelamientos podrían ser reducidas invirtiendo en programas que sean de prevención, tales como aquellos que promueven una exitosa re-inserción a la sociedad.
Resulta impactantemente, saber que California gasta encima de $30,000 por persona que es encarcelada y menos de $6,000 para la educación de cada estudiante. El nivel promedio de educación en la población de las prisiones de California en de 7º grado.
La premisa del CDCR para la mano de obra en la prisión es ?para reducir la ociosidad y la violencia, y aumentar exitosamente la re-inserción para los prisioneros.? La realidad es que en California, cualquier día, el número de violaciones a la libertad condicional puede exceder al número de nueva gente que entra en este rango, lo cual crea un círculo vicioso donde la gente pobre y la gente de color son el blanco perfecto para las nuevas formas de esclavitud en los Estados Unidos. El sistema de prisiones nos recuerda la complicidad y las formas de involucramiento para una esclavitud del nuevo milenio.

It’s All About Us: How did you survive your time inside?

by Yvonne/Hamdiya Cooks
How did you do it? I am often asked this question referring to the time I spent incarcerated in a federal prison. Although I may seem as if I?ve got it all together, I often answer, ?I?ve been damaged?. Long-term incarceration affects the human mind. There is so much time spent planning life after prison that you can?t possibly accomplish it all.
We try to make up for time spent inside as we emerge into a world replete with advanced technology that encourages and allows us to work without stopping. I often reflect on how I spent my time inside and what was it that allowed me to possess a willingness and desire to succeed after 20 years behind cell doors. It was my spirit that didn?t suffer the damage. God blessed me to retain my soul. The system, no matter how brutal, cannot take your spirit.
I recently read an article that memorialized African Americans whom we lost in 2006. BeBe Moore Campbell was among those I was shocked to read about. Ms. Campbell wanted “to give racism a face” when she told in Your Blues Ain?t Like My Blues, a fictionalized story of a young Chicago-born teenager who was murdered in the South after saying the wrong thing to a white woman. I knew this woman was not that ?old?. It made me truly think about my own mortality and my desire to live the remainder of my days on this earth planting seeds of righteousness. I remember being inside sometimes feeling as if therre was no hope. Reading BeBe Moore Campbell?s inspirational writings in Essence Magazine gave me hope and feeling of empowerment. She was truly a blessed woman I hoped to emulate. Reading my Holy Qur?an and her positive words elevated my spirit and allowed me many times to endure another day. I felt as if she was talking to me and knew what I needed. I pray her family knows how much impact her words had on a young Black woman who sometimes didn?t think she could survive.
Too often women carry burdens that aren?t ours to bear. We weren?t taught how to take care of and nurture ourselves. New Year?s resolutions aren?t something I generally make, but if I were to make one I would make a ?new life resolution? and I would vow to make an honest attempt at taking better care of ?me?. By this I mean to take time to enjoy life as we work through it. I pray my comrades inside those cages would do the same. Let?s begin taking better care of ourselves wherever we are. Love ourselves enough to nurture our spirits as we feed our bodies. As we position ourselves in the world attempting to resolve social justice ills, we must not forget our own needs. Let us continue to remind ourselves that we are worthy of being loved and nurtured as we work to nurture and protect those we love. Let us always remember sistahs like BeBe Moore Campbell who gave so much in her short life to so many of us. Take care and God bless.

Prison Labor Hierarchy

Joint Ventures are at the ?top? of the jobs for prisoners. Here are a few facts about Joint Venture:
Proposition 139, passed by California voters in 1990, allows private businesses to contract with the CDC to hire people incarcerated in CA state prisons to produce on prison grounds goods for sale.
Participating businesses get a 10% tax credit. Businesses do not have to pay overtime, worker?s compensation, vacation or sick leave.
Wages are comparable to wages earned on the outside. However, deductions are made for taxes, room and board, restitution and family support. The prisoner only receives 20% of wages. Training is unpaid.
In 2004, only 150 people incarcerated in California state prisons were employed though Joint Ventures and only 6 out of the 32 prisons have a Joint Ventures program. Both CCWF and VSPW have Joint Ventures. CCWF?s is with Allwire Corp. which manufactures cables, circuit boards, and other electronic components.
In 2002, 167 prisoners at Donovan State Correctional Facility won a class action lawsuit against CMT Blues which produces clothing for brands including Mecca, Seattle Cotton Works, Lee Jeans, No Fear, and Trinidad Tees, and were awarded $841,000 in back pay because of the company?s violations of wage and hour requirements.
In 2004, A San Diego Superior Court judge assumed control over the Joint Venture program in response to complaints that employed prisoners were not paid fairly or even at all. The stipulated injunction required that the director of the CDC Joint Venture program report to this judge on the status of compliance for two years.
Prison Industry Authority (PIA) are the second ?layer? of jobs for prisoners. Pay starts at 30 cents per hour and goes up to 95 cents. At CCWF, for example, PIA jobs consist of:
PIA farm: cultivate almond trees and grow alfalfa
PIA warehouse: warehouse for prison supplies
PIA fabric: sew jumpsuits for county jails, men’s underwear, men’s T-shirts (for men’s prisons). flags, silk screening. The shop looks like 19th century sweatshop, no a/c in summer, no heating in winter, lots of lint, which has caused fires when it gets into the machines, the preservative on the fabric causes women’s hand to break out in hives, etc.
PIA dental lab: make dentures, partials, night-guards for state prisons and some veteran homes. It is a good skill. People are able to get a job outside after working there and getting experience. There used to be a training program, but it was cut a few years ago.
Bottom of the pyramid: the mostly unpaid, though sometimes paying 8 cents to 37 cents per hour jobs such as:
* central kitchen: various aspects of food preparation
* dining room: serving food, cleaning after meals, etc. Women in those jobs are sometimes burned by the heavy hot pans
* porters: mop, sweep, clean cop-shops
* yard crew: maintain the outside: have to work in all kind of weather with no protection (no sun-screen in the summer, little protection from the cold and rain in the winter)
* maintenance of electrical appliances: lights, fans, washers and dryers.

CCWP?s celebration

On November 5th, 2006, CCWP hosted a powerful event to celebrate ten years of publishing our newsletter by and for women prisoners. ?The Fire Inside brings light into the hearts of thousands of people each year? wrote Director Yvonne/Hamdiya Cooks in her greeting inside the Program Book for the event. This theme reverberated throughout the entire afternoon as each guest offered their unique energy and awareness to illuminate the brutal conditions which women are subjected to behind bars.
Alice Walker, our honored guest, addressed the enthusiastic crowd which was gathered for the afternoon at the African American Art and Culture Complex in San Francisco. Ms. Walker read excerpts from her new book titled We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For and engaged the audience in thought provoking reflections on the state of the planet earth today.
?It is the worst of times because it feels as though the very Earth is being stolen from us, by us: the land and air poisoned, the water polluted, the animals disappeared, humans degraded and misguided. War is everywhere. It is the best of times because we have entered a period, if we can bring ourselves to pay attention, of great clarity as to cause and effect.?
Ms. Walker also spoke of the cases of political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal and the Cuban Five as well as a wide range of other subjects.
The feedback about the event has been tremendously positive. Many people have said that the event raised their spirits and made them want to become involved in CCWP?s work for women prisoners.