This interview is also available in zine form (pdf at the end of the interview).
Vincent, tell us what it’s like to work in the jail.
You can work 40 hours a week in the jail, and still owe money when you get out. Like me, I was put in there for owing in child support, I worked most of the time I was in there, and I came out and was no better off. The people in the kitchen work from 4:30 in the morning until 6 at night. It’s crazy. But they don’t want anyone to know all that worker-inmates do to keep the jail running. They don’t want the public to know. When you go to court, you have to change out of your blue uniform (signifying work pod) to go to court to appear in orange. They don’t want you to have any special recognition. The orange shows you are a criminal. The public knows that, they know orange = criminal. Even though you are doing a service for the jail. But they don’t want people to know that.
How did you come to be on the work pod?
Because I was having trouble adjusting to being confined. I went five days without eating when I was there. Mental health suggested I go on the work pod and I accepted. (As an aside, mental health is overworked, understaffed—for 400 people, it’s not enough). Basically, it was a way for me to keep busy, and keep my mind off things.
What expectations did you have for that, or what did you get?
Basically there’s more out time. You get an extra walk—the night walk. That’s all you get. Fried leg quarters every two weeks—I guess that’s the paycheck. Every two weeks on Tuesday you get fried leg quarters. And some hygiene stuff: Free deodorant, soap, toothpaste. You can get an extra tray at lunch. Extra helping of slop at lunch—potatoes, soy and carrots. Raw potatoes for breakfast, all-the-way done potatoes for lunch. You usually have to sign up to get on the work pod, but I didn’t go through the kiosk. Mental health did it for me. Most people try to get on there to have more time out of their cell. Some people who are doing time there, on a sentence, might be able to get up to 4 days off their sentence per month (but this is discretionary). DWI or child support or probation violation get no gain time. It’s up to the facility to grant you the days off. Those people not getting the days off is because of the sheriff (see general statute).
There was a day people were refusing to go into the kitchen, and they threatened to lock everybody back. The other threat is you’ll be removed from the pod. Those threats keep people in line.
They don’t want to cut days off of those people, because that’s money for them. The longer those people stay, the more money the county gets. The added bonus they get is they’re working in the work pod, and that’s 65 people for free labor.
In my opinion, it’s the same thing they used to do in the Old South. Keep everyone in field working, you keep all the money. 65 people running your jail, from laundry, to sanitation, to cooking your food—all the officers have to do is just sit there, pretty much. Conditions in DCJ are like the Old South because c.o.’s are like black slavers. They work their own people and rarely assist in the work. I’ve noticed that they have a White Sheriff followed by a black female Colonel Perkins who is submissive to him and Major Couch submissive to Colonel Perkins so the black female has Authority over the black male who is submissive to a white male. It’s the best way to divide and conquer.
The sheriff’s department is the new headquarters of the Klan—they even recruit black people. The best way to oppress a people is to use their own people because they know them.
How does anyone get to be on the work pod?
Most people ask at the kiosk. As long as you fit the criteria. As long as you’re sentenced, or have a bond less than $20,000. It’s totally voluntarily done. But if you give limited recreation time, people will jump at the opportunity.
Everyone does it just to get out of the cell. Sitting in a box all day long is no fun.
For people who don’t understand, what work do inmates perform at the Durham jail?
In the kitchen they don’t have enough kitchen staff. They are totally dependent on inmates. Most of the time, you’ll have one cafeteria worker, who works for Aramark. He or she is like the whipmaster, the dictator. Roughly 10 to 15 inmates per one paid kitchen staff paid by Aramark. The inmates work for the whole day. They treat you like you’re getting a check.
What did you do? Take us through a typical day.
I did laundry. A typical day in laundry, there’s only four of us who work. We wash everything. We pick it up, we wash it, we dry it, we bring it back. We do at least two floors, or eight pods a day. Wash, dry, put each bag back on the appropriate door. One officer is with us everywhere, to make sure you’re not doing anything you’re not supposed to. They don’t do the work. They’re the overseers. We started about 7 a.m., and we’d be done by 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon. Everything that has linen on it, we do it. Intake and outgoing laundry.
In the laundry we fold all inmate jail-issued clothes. And washed all personal items in net bags. We fold blankets, sheets, towels, washcloths and supply the kitchen and sanitation departments. We go in every pod except for the female they don’t even want us to look at them, it’s like they think we’ve never seen women before. But we hang the bags back on the doors we take them off in the morning. We do it all.
The clothes they buy are the cheapest possible. So people will buy more. The blankets are like sheets; if you get a pinhole in them you can rip them from end-to-end with little force. The sheets are see-through. The new uniforms are stock piled in the back, out of circulation, while the old raggedy laundry ones are circulated.
I did try other work, but laundry suited me best. I worked a little in the kitchen, and another inmate-worker said to me “you’re putting too much meat on there.” (We’re talking four pieces of thin, thin meat.) I looked at him like, ‘what the fuck you talking about? If I’m gonna be down there, I’m gonna do it my way.’ It’s funny how they feel like it’s coming out of their pocket. That’s the assimilation stuff I’m talking about, they identify with the jail in a way. Inmates prepare food for officers. Spaghetti with real beef in it. They pay two dollars for a tray. The officers get milk. No inmates get milk at all. No fruit, except for applesauce. But, sometimes the inmates get the officers in their own ways.
Would you say the work of inmates is very important to the daily functioning of the jail?
It’s essential! You can’t have all the inmates sit in the pod all day and have all this stuff happen. Inmate workers save that jail a lot of money. 65 times 8 times 40. I figured minimum wage, I forgot the amount, but it’s a lot of money (at $7.25/hr–$18850).
How aware are all inmates of how vital their work (or the work of the work pod) is?
I think most inmates know, but they become assimilated. They feel like they’re obligated to work there, like it’s a real job they’re getting paid for, where there is no gratitude whatsoever. My thing is they’re feeling like they have to do it. But I guess you do, because if you don’t you go back in your box.
What did you think about your role as a worker-inmate at DCDF?
I felt like I was giving them a discount on ways to confine me. It was ultimately disrespect. Everything I did was to benefit them, nothing to benefit me. No payment, no less time to serve, you’re pushed into the streets and no means of taking care of yourself. You come out to more problems than what you went in with, which is my case. And they got a lot of my labor.
What do you think people on other pods think about the work pod?
They think we’re privileged. But we earn every moment we had out. Grass on the other side of the fence always is greener til you get there.
It’s interesting because you would think with all the work that inmates do that the jail would be clean. But one of the things that people complain about a lot is not having access to cleaning materials.
As far as the jail being dirty: imagine you have 65 inmates in a pod in 48 cells with one mop head for seven days and you’re cleaning around toilets with diluted chemicals. Those mop rooms smell like urine and sewage.
What is people’s understanding of who and what Aramark is?
Aramark: people know how they are making money off them. You feed people potatoes three times a day and they know people are starving them out to buy hot trays at 8 or 9 bucks a pop, and/or canteen. And they’re doing this with almost all inmates doing the work.
What would happen if no one agreed to be on the work pod, or they just didn’t do the work?
They’d have to hire people and actually have to pay people. And it would be a county job so it would have to be over minimum wage. They are running their business as cheaply as possible. Period. The jail is a business. It’s a racket.
I mean the work pod, it’s another chain link in the extortion process. If you owe the county money, and you work six months for them, and you still owe them money afterward—who benefitted? I didn’t. Not at all. Matter of fact, the jail and the whole legal system is the source of my anxiety.
I talk about assimilation, but it’s not just the inmate being assimilated, it’s the employees, too. This assimilation comes from the Willie Lynch mentality. The Old South is like a roach problem. You can’t stomp it out.