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.