The inter-workings of a century old system, slowly creek behind the barbed wired fences of the Texas penitentiary. Built on the fundamental principles of free labor and punishment, the elements of modern day imprisonment are still archaic and brutally harsh.
Deep in the heart of Texas, in one of the most incarcerated states of the country, are the mass industrial complexes that warehouses hundreds of thousands of prisoners. With the busiest death house in the nation, and it’s prehistoric reliance on penology for profit, there is a reason they call it the “Texas Empire.”
The unit I am on is surrounded by thousands of acres of farmland. They are three-story tiers house over 3,000 men in compact two-man cells. A city within itself, secured and covered walk-ways connect the multitude of buildings. Offices, solitary, an infirmary, a kitchen, the mail room, and segregation are all a part of prison life here. Just beyond the perimeter fence, the many complexes that piece together Texas’ multi-billion dollar corporation emerge. Manufacturing plants that process meat and animal feed, chicken farms, slaughter houses, and endless rows of crops are never closed for business. Livestock line the fences for miles, roaming in large herds. Then, too, apart of the money making machine that thrives every time a new sentence is being served.
Inmates are subjugated to work either to twelve hours a day without pay. If the mandated work is not carried out, disciplinary action will be enforced per the state handbook: Level 2 Offense Code 25, to be exact. The jobs are assigned by a classification committee. These jobs can easily range from working in the field, to a job at one of the many factories, or serving beans in the kitchen. The jobs are often grueling and can be very dangerous. We belong to an industry that would not survive without the hundreds of thousands of incarcerated men and women who drive their free-labor work force.
In order to see a clear picture and attempt to understand Texas’ mass incarceration, it is important to address the substantial factors that date back to slavery. The 13th amendment was established to prohibit slavery. The loop-hole in this amendment is where it states that slavery is prohibited “except as punishment for a crime.” With that loop-hole in place, forced labor has continued just as it had before the civil war.
When slavery was abolished and the emancipation finally took place in Texas, joy for some meant panic for others. Abandoning the enormous crops to yield, many of the slaves sought freedom elsewhere. As new laws were quickly established, and free labor was legally allocated to those who are punished, the inter-workings of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice pretentiously began to weave their web. Plantations soon became penitentiary farms. Masters became wardens, naming their empire after one another, county jails became hostels, and Texas rangers quickly pulled out their brand new lassos. The machine began to creek over a century ago, and has not hindered nor bowed its head since.
Now immersed deep within this Texas Empire, I look out through my narrow door after an exhausting day at work. I do all that I can to continue on each day, striving to have a purpose and refusing to silence my voice, in a place that is rooted in age old traditions and iniquities. It is the inter-workings of my own will and fortitude that have somehow continued to give me fuel for this fight.
–Keven James, January 17th 2015