Texas prison workforce: A model of profit, modern slavery, and humiliation (by Jason Renard Walker)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 4 specifically abolishes slavery in all its functioning forms: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the state trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” Well, to the contrary the United States Constitution, 13th Amendment allows slavery but under the guise “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place to their Jurisdiction.”

Regardless of it being inside prison or out; slavery is slavery and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) utilizes this subtle money making practice very well.

Being one of three states that refuse to pay prisoners for their work (Arkansas and Georgia the other two) Texas has a way of not only exploiting the work ethic of its captives to the max, but doing it in the most cruel and inhumane way imaginable.

It wasn’t until the coming of the new millennium when TDCJ was forced to reduce the work day of field workers (hoe squads) to half a day or six hours. Prior to this, prisoners were up and ready to work at 5:50 AM. They would return for lunch close to 12:00 PM, in which case they were strip-searched out in the open en masse (temperature and elements not withstanding).

There was no chance to wash up or use the bathroom since the latter was done behind bushes or in a trench. Prisoners were marched in dirty clothing to the chow hall, rushed to eat, returned to their cell briefly, then sent back to the fields to work the second half of the day.

During the end of the work day close to one hundred prisoners were in the process of cavity searches, naked, and standing in line waiting for their turn to “spread ’em”, while every passing woman would look and sometimes laugh as officers demoralized prisoners while they stood naked waiting to be searched. “Hey hairy ass, nuts to butt,” they would often say; “My wife’s clit is bigger than your cheese curl,” some regularly chuckled out.

This was only done as a means of self assurance since most of the officers were fat, old, and unappealing and normally these same women would intentionally stall just to get glances of the naked men, and they knew this.

What’s problematic about this treatment is that the exploitation of it was so blatant and set up. The only work tools issued were dull and rusty garden hoes. The work area usually consisted of dry dirt and rocks which was to be plowed using a synchronized technique called four stepping; with the prisoners being hauled into portable cages and driven there by a prisoner lackey – modern day slavery.

Prisoners worked in unison while in straight rows parallel to each other, with the first man (the lead man) and the last man (the tailman) singing in duet jingles about our being slaved. “One high, two high, three high, four step,” the lead man sang with glee. “I don’t wanna, you don’t wanna, but we gotta four step.” The tailman would cut in and chant, as both rocked back and forth while they four stepped, exhibiting happiness in hopes of impressing the overseer they referred to as “boss man”.

This happy slave mentality normally generated fights since the average new, and yet unbroken prisoner didn’t express joyfulness in the blistering heat or ear bitten cold. When it was shown that the new guy was slow or unwilling to keep up, it wasn’t uncommon to hear “can I get ‘em boss?” A broken prisoner in the lead man role would sometimes say in hopes of getting permission to beat the stalling worker into submission for his boss.

A nod of the head and a fight broke out. The cutthroat sign across the neck and the lead man would carry on like a trained bird dog, “I used to work at Mickey D’s, now I slave for TDC,” “I use to drive a Cadillac, now I’m chopping dirt not crack.” The lead and tailman sang back and forth casually glancing up at the horse riding, tobacco dipping “boss man” making sure he remained pleased.

Every time a supervisor showed up someone always made the announcement “Here come the lieutenant, let’s make the boss look good.” This caused all of the rows of lead and tailmen to put on their best effort in hopes of getting verbal recognition from the lieutenant. They chopped, sang, and four stepped like madmen.

The bosses usually seized this opportunity to impress their supervisor as well. “Keep that aggie high ho” “Shut your dick holster and get to work bitch.” Simultaneously; every boss in the fields cursed at and verbally abused the workers. Who by now are sweating and slung over their garden hoes.

This all occurred in 1999 and even though things have changed since then, the hoe squads still exist and are now assigned to those considered the dregs of the prison system.

Hoe squads are now the shadow of the atrocious way field work was forced upon prisoners back in the 30s and 40s. Things were so brutal that it was quite common for prisoners to inflict injuries amongst themselves and each other just to be relieved of work for several days. Severed toes and sprained ankles were the typical forms of injuries.[1]

Before the sun rose they were dressed and ready to take a three, often four mile journey which required them to jog all the way there, work, then jog back. Those that chose not to work were thrown into a box, shackled head and foot, and kept this way until they were given their daily bread and water; then after 15 minutes reshackled and left naked to be eaten alive by the mosquitoes and summer heat.[2]

Heart attacks, heat strokes, and other illnesses attributed to this labor, resulted in men falling out and dying in the fields. It is here in Texas where the racialized southern prison model (that has since drifted across America) morphed out of the slave plantation. The leasing of convict labor which had prisoners rented out to U.S. corporations, had these standards set by profiteers in Texas.

In the early stages of incarceration, prisoners were worked in conditions akin to German Nazi labor camps which was exposed by Robert Perkinson[3] in his book Texas Tough: “recorded mortality rates in excess of 20%, in some instances put U.S. Steel on par with German and Japanese companies that profited from slave labor in World War I. But while these corporations have been held to account, U.S. Steel has escaped unscathed. Although the Wall Street Journal recently probed the company’s shameful history, no reparations movement has emerged among former convicts or their descendants.” The constant exposure of this caused a revolution in how private corporations used and leased prisoners. Once it was deemed as cruel labor and the work conditions being considered 3rd Worldish. Corporations like CCA, GEO, and their counterparts emerged and launched a money making scheme that specifically focused on designing prisons that looked more sanitary and in compliance than the state prisons across the country.

Their primary agenda was based on contracting with food and commissary vendors that had no current ties with the prisons they contracted with. Which as a result, would excel the continuing practice of labor, while profits poured in from the overpriced canteen that sometimes had tobacco products and a variety of coffee brands, thus making them appear prestigious and caring to the prison population.

As far as the public is concerned, these private prisons are to accommodate the mass overflow of prisons; but they are only looking to profit and play into the booming growth of the Texas prison system which Robert Perkinson[4] also put under the microscope: “Although Texas ranks fiftieth among states in the amount of money it spends on indigent criminal defense, it ranks first in prison growth, first in for-profit imprisonment, first in supermax lockdown, first in total number of adults under criminal justice supervision, and a resounding first in executions.”

Numbers like these aren’t startling at all. Just by being a prisoner in Texas you can feel the consequences of each above mentioned statistic in abstract. Outside of the money dished out to the private prisons, Texas pulls in a handsome number themselves.

Since Texas relies heavily on the free labor of prisoners, each prison is able to pull in $250,000 to $500,000 worth of prison labor per month by way of the many jobs that keep the prison up and running e.g. inmate janitors, painters, plumbers, electricians, welders, cooks, line-servers, dishwashers, tutors, clerks, etc.

Outside jobs holding these same titles pay anywhere from $8.00 to $35.00 per hour. Prisoners here are allotted good time in exchange, but these credits can be taken for picking up disciplinary cases and are in no way recoverable. Even when the correct amount of good time/worktime is accumulated, a prisoner still isn’t guaranteed release and those that have 3 year offenses and aggravated time (like myself) have to do 50% of our sentence no matter how much good time/worktime we have. These are phantom credits to us and are useless.

Such programs designed to promote rehabilitation are few and far between and any literature that publishes organizational movements like work strikes, prison coalitions, etc. is banned as being disruptive.

In fact the only popular work strike in TDCJ history is one that was a showing of solidarity for David Ruiz and the 110 prisoners that were called to testify in the behalf of his federal lawsuit challenging the conditions of Texas prisons,[5] which still has an impact on today’s prison society.

In order for Texas prison officials to further spread the happy slave mentality amongst the society, they create and promote their own prison literature which is filled with nothing but pro-administration propaganda which is mostly written and edited by prison officials portraying prisoners.

Out of the many stories and “letters to the editor” that get published, none speak of uniting the prison population, suggestions to better the conditions, or the desire to get paid for their labor. Since the writings that are to be published get screened by prison staff, only the most absurd and wacky inquiries make it through.[6] “I thought that I would petition [sic] to Supreme Court of the United States for such a matter… but I believe you to be the higher authority in answering the following question: If a person drops a cookie on the floor for the second time, does the five second clock restart?” What’s even more bizarre is that the question received a lengthy and exhaustive answer.

This 100% free monthly newspaper The ECHO that’s published by the administration is completely baseless and has no rehabilitating principles, but for one reason or another it has survived since its 1928 inauguration and is only good for cleaning cell windows and wrapping up cookies.


This makes it clear that what’s read by prisoners does have some influence on their thinking and acting since The ECHO only publishes silly questions and prisoners ask them. But on the other hand the prison bans literature promoting unity, thus prisoners have no vehicle for sharing ideas of a positive and beneficial nature that can help them move forward.

Being under such restraints is sure to keep the current overall mentality of the prison population stagnant, which is probably one reason The ECHO still exists and publishes enough copies to guarantee each prisoner at least one.

It is circumstances like these that call for immediate unity amongst prisoners despite race, religion, political stance, and anything that prevents our grouping. It’s obvious that prison officials are content with our oppression, so a better tomorrow won’t come unless we become the decisive factor. Call and email these officials today and tell them to stop this  slavery.

Jason Renard Walker #1532092
Clements Unit
9601 Spur 591
Amarillo, TX 79107



[1] Clyde, The meanest man in Texas, (nonfiction autobiography) by Dan Umphrey.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, by Robert Perkinson (New York: Henry Holt, 2016).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gloria Rubac, “Historic Prison activist David Ruiz dies,” Workers World, Nov 27, 2005.

[6] The ECHO Texas prison news, Vol 87 No.10 Dec 2015/ Jan 2016, Letters to the Darbster pg. 3.


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