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From interviews conducted with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated laborers by employees of the American Civil Liberties Union and professors and students at the University of Chicago Law School.

field labor

In prison you have to work. The choice is work or solitary confinement. It’s hard manual labor. If you worked in the field, you would most times get written up for malingering. There weren’t a lot of white girls in the field. The amount of work that prisons get out of inmates is insane. They gave me a pamphlet [of prospective employers] when I got out. Not one of the people in the pamphlet was still in business. That’s what they give you when you get out. A list of people who don’t even exist.

the kitchen

We are not given basic proper footwear. We are forced to wear our own shoes that cost anywhere from 35 to 75 dollars. There are several colonies of mice that are present in the very places where food is made and stored. There is one working sink and you have to travel a ways through the kitchen to get to it. Especially after using the bathroom.

This is a horrible job I’d never wish on anyone.

fighting fires

Most jobs pay under thirty cents. The upper limit is one dollar per hour—those are for dangerous jobs such as firefighting.

There was nothing to distinguish us as incarcerated firefighters when we were in gear. The only thing that people knew was that we were female—an all-female crew. Nobody questioned our credentials. There were areas—nearby small communities—where they definitely knew the fire girls were from the prison. So sometimes they would say, “Oh, the fire girls, we love you.” We had a Christmas Eve fire at a correctional officer’s house. We were working to save our jailor’s home.

selling vacation packages over the phone

I’ve never been to Cancún, but I know all about it. Coral reefs. White sands. Couple’s massages. You cannot reveal where you are if you are asked. You can make up a name. I was a liar before I went to prison. But prison turned me into a professional liar.

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September 2022

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