My experience as a prison worker is universally negative.
One of my most grueling experiences happened working in the kitchen in Walla Walla. I was on shift working as a pot scrubber when Golf and Fox units both had multi man fights. Suddenly my 7 hour shift from 4 am to 11 am got extended to 6 pm. Just before dinner there was another multi man fight in Delta unit. My shift was extended again to 4 am. This is the time for my normal callout, so of course I had to report for work. This went on for two days. When I tried to take a nap c/o’s told me I wasn’t allowed to sleep in the kitchen. I ended up doing lines of chicory just to stay awake. Every time I asked to leave I was told I had to keep working. The c/o’s locked the break room so no one could go rest in there. Eventually a group of us sat down by the door and refused to get up. I fell asleep half propped up against the wall. Finally the c/o’s let us leave, but only for 6 hours. We were then directed to report back to work again. They claimed that we would be paid overtime. We weren’t. I still only got $55 that month.
After I cane out as trans, my employment experiences got even worse. At WSR I was assigned to work as a dishwasher in an area with no cameras, no other inmates and tons of blind spots. I had one coworker who kept begging me for sexual favors. It got to the point where it was clear he wasn’t going to keep taking no for an answer. I went to our supervisor, explained what was happening and asked to be moved to a different work space, somewhere with greater visibility. I made it clear that I wasn’t looking to get him in trouble, I just wanted to be safe. She moved me to the back kitchen washing pots and pans where there was a bunch of other inmates and the c/o’s desk nearby. My coworker went to her boss and complained. Somehow me refusing to give him sexual favors turned into me threatening to beat him up and I was fired.
Because of these, and many other experiences, I now refuse to work in the prison kitchens. I’d rather take the punishment for refusing to work. That being said, things still aren’t all puppies and roses.
Currently I work as a tutor for Edmonds College. This is by far the single best job I’ve ever had in prison. I get to help others get their GEDs. That being said, I’m still not allowed to have a choice in coming in to work or not. There is this whole pandemic thing going on, you may have heard of it. I don’t have the ability to choose to self quarantine. I go to work or I am fired and I won’t be given a second chance at getting my job back.
I don’t have sick days. I work two classes a day and each is three hours long. The classroom is 26 Celsius (80 Fahrenheit) because there is no A/C and we share the building with the CI laundry. I don’t have access to water, limited access to restrooms, and don’t even get me started on a lack of resources. We don’t have enough of the basics, like paper. How am I supposed to teach science when we’re not allowed to do science experiments and we don’t even have basic science textbooks? We had six computers for 20 students. Now, due to social distancing, we have three computers for ten students. We are not allowed to rearrange the room to physically distance the computers. Instead we’ve had to block off every other one to keep people separated.
This is what prison labor looks like. Even in the best possible scenario where I have a job I love, I don’t have the means to do it and I’m paid 40 cents an hour. Labors across the US are fighting for $15 per hour. I’m fighting to make my hours for $15 a week. It’s miserable.