By Jacqueline Conn
The fields on the William P. Hobby unit in Marlin, TX had watermelons, green onions, okra, sweet potatoes—and I’m sure other crops that I don’t remember because they aren’t tied to a trauma. It was plantation fields with a disproportionate amount of Blacks and Latinos working under mostly white guards on horses.
I was on the “aggravated hoe squad” for women with violent charges, many of whom I‘d learn were lifetime victims of abuse themselves.
After we were pat down and out the gates, the Lieutenant—an older White man on horseback—gave a brief orientation, “. . . I only break fights if someone ain't fightin back an’s gettin a head kicked in . . . nothin worse than a wimp.”
With that we started running in a tight line of pairs, with an aggie (or hoe, hence “hoe squad”) balanced on the palms of our hands. Our bosses herded us, sitting over us horseback with shotguns.
I should pause for a definition of terms. Prison labor, job training, and humanizing the carceral state are used interchangeably to talk about modern day slavery. Texas Correctional Industries (TCI) redefined its slavery program as one that provides “participants with marketable job skills to help reduce recidivism through . . . job skills training.” These redefinitions help us forget the 13th amendment banned slavery, with the exception of prisoners.
Eventually I saw the parallels to slavery: neither are a choice, and both motivate workers with coercion and fear. Hoe squad bosses put the fastest at the front and punished anyone in back who couldn’t keep up. Bosses reprimanded us and rewarded fast workers for bullying “lazy” ones. Other women became our enemies and bosses were our merciful masters.
There were porta-potties and a water tank; we got to use both if we were lucky. Some days the heat climbed up to 114 degrees. I got sick the first winter, but there are no sick days and “only sorry hoes complain.” The boss told me to vomit as I worked, as long as I didn’t stop moving.
I didn’t have friends on the field at first. They called me weak, lazy, or dirty because I looked different than them, and no one wanted to work by me. We had no sympathy for each other, or ourselves. Each morning we picked a partner. The wrong partner meant a case or a beating, and so I was always the last person picked. One morning, too beat down for pretense, I mumbled to myself: “why doesn’t anyone want to be my partner, what’s wrong with me?” One woman heard me, and made the choice to be my friend. “I remember what it was like when I first started,” she said. This is the only disruptive, radically compassionate moment I remember.
It’s impossible for me to fully describe a world that for some may only exist in the 1800’s. But I can say this: none of the “job skills” I learned from prison slave labor—like how to hold my pee, or work through dehydration, or avoid physical violence with jokes—have proved marketable in any of my job searches. I still don’t know how to talk about my experience as a prison laborer free from the trauma and shame that comes with having once been an object of the state. Maybe TCI could also offer a resume template on their website, or advice for the growing number of men and women returning home with a lack of marketable job skills, but an abundance of trauma and shame.
Jacqueline Conn is a writer and activist living in Austin, Texas.