Reflections of an Incarcerated Worker
Revolutionary Greetings, comrades, friends, and fellow workers! I’d like to send out my clenched fist of solidarity to all the wonderful humyn beings who read and support the Brooklyn Rail. I appreciate the opportunity to communicate with all of you.
Let me start by talking about some of the conditions inside the Texas prisons which eventually led me to become a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC). In 2009 I was transferred to the Mark Stiles Unit, located in Beaumont, Texas. At the time, Stiles Unit—as it is commonly known—had a rather large and busy metal fabricating plant. The plant’s workers were all prisoners and they were not paid anything for their labor, some of which was extremely skilled.
I had heard a lot of rumors about Stiles Unit. The Unit houses a large number of gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer humyn beings, but the rumors I heard had nothing to do with them. I had heard that a couple of weeks prior to my arrival, forty-five cell phones had been found in the underbelly of an air compressor. I should mention that prisoners in Texas don’t making anything for working, and it costs money to talk on the institution phones. I’ve been to approximately 19 Texas prisons and many times, the guys I knew who were using cell phones were trying to communicate with their families. Of course, some people use cell phones for nefarious reasons. But when you isolate a large cross-section of American society from their loved ones, we are going to do whatever we can to maintain family ties.
The air compressor had been shipped to and received by prisoners working at the metal fab plant at Stiles Unit—so somebody was in trouble. Every prisoner who was remotely involved with that shipment was given a Major Disciplinary Case and fired; and with the smuggling of cell phones into a prison facility came felony charges, on top of the prison infraction. At the end of the day, being fired from a job you weren’t getting paid to work in the first place just means that you have more free-time on your hands.
I must mention that most of the men working at the metal fab plant at the time I was there were getting hands-on experience and on-the-job training in valuable trades like welding, pipe fitting, industrial painting, and also in computer-aided drafting. These job skills could lead to good-paying jobs should a prisoner discharge his sentence or be granted parole. But that’s the thing: not only does Texas refuse to pay us for our labor, which is certainly generating a profit, they have rigged the system in such a manner that our good time and work time credits don’t reduce our sentences by one day. The Texas legislature has created some ambiguous language in the Texas Government Code about parole eligibility. And then the state has vested a state body known as the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole with ultimate authority over the decision whether or not to grant you parole. I can tell you from personal experience that this board is stocked with individuals with law-enforcement backgrounds who don’t like convicts, and that if you are politically active, as I am, you ain’t getting out on parole—period! Racism, bigotry, and political bias are woven into the decision-making process in regard to parole eligibility and prospective release.
Upon my arrival to Stiles Unit I had no intention or desire to work inside the metal fab plant, but Stiles Unit had a Black female warden named Sandra Allen, who had plans for me. A lot of prisoners who worked as “clerks” had lost their positions at the plant as a result of the cell-phone smuggling scandal, and I had skills that the plant manager, Randy Murphy, needed.
On my first day at the plant, the first thing that I noticed was the thick cloud of toxic dust and smog which hovered just inside the building. This toxic cloud was produced by the numerous welding booths and industrial painting projects going on inside the plant. The ventilation was extremely poor and no one was wearing masks or respirators which could filter the toxic air.
The State of Texas, through its legislature, has crafted Texas government codes in such a manner that OSHA, the EPA, and any other agency that might protect workers from unsafe work conditions are prohibited from setting foot inside one of these toxic metal fabrication plants operated by the Texas Correctional Industries (TCI) and located inside prisons operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).
I was brought into the main office, which houses the offices of the civilian workers who manage the plant for TDCJ and TCI. There also was a large office filled with computer stations. At each station sat a prisoner diligently working a keyboard. Most of these men were computer-aided drafters. My office space would be in the office space of the head accountant, Mrs. Ledette. It wasn’t long before I learned that Bonnie Ledette was a super-bigot who did not believe that a persyn of color had the capacity or aptitude to grasp the complex and intricate workings of the accounting side of the metal fabrication plant. There were about ten prisoners working in that office space—about eight Whites and two Mexicans. I was the only Black and I am also a Muslim. Soon I would discover that I was Warden Allen’s experiment in Affirmative Action in a plant with a history of relegating Blacks to the “lower strata” jobs like cleaning up or assembling mops and brooms. There is a culture of racism throughout the Texas prisons: Look at the maintenance crew at just about any prison and you will rarely see a black face. The plumbing and electrician crews are mostly made up of White men. The employees in charge of these crews are usually racist White men, so of course they surround themselves with the demographic they feel comfortable with! This is another bitter truth about Texas prisons which is seldom heard about.
I was trained for my accounting position by a White prisoner named Michael Walker. Michael was Jewish; I would soon find out that he was an excellent teacher, extremely intelligent—AND NOT A RACIST! Michael and I were housed in the same area at the Stiles Unit. Every evening, after we showered and ate last chow (supper), we would unwind in the day room and go over the day’s lesson and talk about our lives in the free-world. Michael and I had a lot in common. Like me, Michael was a veteran of the U.S. armed services—he served in the Navy and I in the Army. Michael had been working at the metal fab plant for twelve years and no one knew more about the inner workings of that plant than Michael Walker. The plant manager and the assistant plant manager often called Michael into their offices when they encountered problems that they couldn’t solve. I noticed that when Michael blew his nose, the toilet paper would turn black from the mucus. I was shocked, and asked him how long that had been going on. He told me, for the past ten years. Michael had a life sentence; the metal fab plant was his life—it was who he was and he figured he’d die in prison anyway, so he wasn’t very concerned about his long-term health, and neither was the TDCJ.
It wasn’t long before I mastered the ACCESS computer program that TDCJ uses to manage many of its factories throughout the state. I am talking about meat-packing plants, mattress factories, computer recovery shops; even TDCJ’s food service departments use the ACCESS program. Michael taught me how to create the weekly accounting reports that had to be sent to the warden’s office and then to the supervisor of TDCJ’s metal fabrication operations, Jeannette Alford, who worked at TDCJ headquarters in Huntsville, Texas. The metal fab factories are under a department called Precision Steel and they have contracts from state agencies all over Texas. As I studied the numbers I soon learned that metal fab was making a killing off the backs of free prison labor. These men made gun safes for law enforcement, concertina wire for other prisons and jails, ornamental fencing for free-world contracts, lockers, trailer hitches, and barbeque pits—it was an impressive operation, for sure.
Michael and I were making our rounds one day in order to track down the status of a particular project when we came across some tall lockers painted maroon. I jokingly said, “Those look like Aggie lockers,” referring to Texas A&M University. Michael said, “Good eye, Malik—those are going to Texas A&M, we have a contract with them.” I sat and thought, how many college students know that their lockers are made with free prison labor? I wondered, would they join with us and protest against this exploitation of humyn beings? Texas A&M is not the only university in Texas which benefits from prison laborers who don’t make anything for the work they do.
In April 2016, journalist Aaron Cantu published an article, “Who’s Behind Unpaid Prison Labor in Texas?”, in LittleSis (news.littlesis.org); I highly recommend you Google and read this article today. It is not long but it is jam-packed with information that the general public should know.
Once you begin studying the upper echelon of the hierarchy which runs and operates TCI, you will recognize that “prison slavery” in Texas is not just a cliche, it is a reality. The Texas Board of Criminal Justice (TBCJ) helps create policies and regulations for the TDCJ. This board also oversees TCI. The board, which is made up of corporate lawyers and businesspeople, has the authority to pay Texas prisoners for the labor they provide—but the Board has chosen to pay them nothing. The Board is intent on milking the free prison labor for all it is worth. In fiscal year 2014, total sales for TCI were valued at $88.9 million.
The IWW/IWOC is on the front line of the battle being waged against these sophisticated grifters and violators of the public trust. But it is not alone. For instance, in 2018, the spokespersyn for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, Amani Sawari, appeared on the nationally-syndicated new program, Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman. She made it crystal clear that prisoners subjected to abuse, mistreatment, and prison slavery would no longer remain in the shadows as “Hidden Figures” to the Amerikan public. And in fact our movement has been attracting mainstream media attention, and officials in Texas—as well as in many other states with large prison populations—didn’t like it.
I am not only an incarcerated worker; I am known as a political activist and journalist. I always knew I could write well, especially when I put my mind to it, but I was quite surprised how influential my writings could become among prisoners inside facilities operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (sic!). In April, 2016 I discovered that numerous prisoners had heard my plea for direct action and solidarity with the IWOC and Free Alabama Movement. As a result, many Texas prisoners, both wimmin and men, began to “lay it down” on April 4, 2016.
Needless to say, it wasn’t just prisoners who began to notice my writings and organizational skills. High-ranking prison officials and members of US law enforcement became very interested in a Texas prisoner who many knew as Comrade Malik. State surveillance by domestic police and intelligence agencies has always been a part of the long history of the IWW. Whether it be racist vigilante mobs or Pinkerton detectives, the state has always targeted those who organize on the left. The Feds don’t send you a letter in the mail and say, “Hey, we are watching you!” But if you pay close attention to your surroundings and the new people who start to pop into your life, it won’t be long before you figure out that something ain’t quite right.
Now, pay attention! Dale Wainwright is the Chair of the TBCJ. He is a Black man—and a crony capitalist to the core, in bed with Donald Trump and someone close to Trump. Wainwright is a managing partner in the Austin, Texas office of Bracewell and Giuliani—the law firm where former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is a partner—the same Rudy Giuliani who is legal counsel to the President of the United States. Anyone who has researched my journalism and activism will discover that I am very critical of Donald J. Trump and his administration. I’ve written a provocative essay entitled “No Love for Yemen,” slamming every member of Trump’s immediate circle for their complicity in the genocide of Yemen. I probably pissed a few people off.
On June 8, 2018, the TDCJ approved me for release from long-term solitary confinement at the Eastham Unit where I was housed. That was the same month that the Brooklyn Rail published Julie Schneyer’s “End Prison Slavery” in the Field Notes section, along with an article by me. On June 21, 2018, I arrived at the Ramsey I Unit to participate in an Ad-Seg Transition Program, which was supposed to prepare me to reintegrate back into General Population. It would never be! On the next morning, June 22, 2018, without any warning, I was literally kidnapped and spirited away and returned to Administrative Segregation. No explanation was given, and I was eventually transferred to the Unit where I currently reside, the W.G. McConnell Restrictive Housing Unit, located in Beeville, Texas. My friend and comrade Julie Schneyer attempted to get me readmitted to the Transition Program, to no avail. We soon discovered that the Department of Homeland Security together with members of Texas law enforcement had crafted a shadowy and mysterious Fusion Center report requesting that TDCJ return me to solitary confinement. The Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton, has had a hand in my placement in solitary confinement. We have been prohibited from viewing the Fusion Center document. I need legal representation right now!
The National Lawyers Guild, with headquarters in New York City, is the perfect organization to help us address these ongoing violations of my due process rights as well as other violations of the Constitution. The NLG lacks the financial support it needs to defend many of the prisoners throughout the United States who are currently being targeted by the US government and the various departments of corrections that are housing these jail-house lawyers and freedom fighters. I humbly request that readers consider supporting the NLG and the work they do for many prisoners and other oppressed humyn beings.
[Readers wishing to contribute to Malik's legal defense can write Bob Branam at [email protected] to donate to the account of Keith H. Washington, TDCJ # 1487958—Editor.]
There is no way I can discuss my experiences as an incarcerated worker without paying respect to the workers’ union that acknowledged Amerikan prisoners as workers and rejected the label of “modern slave” that prison administrators have continued to perpetuate through their treatment of us. This prison slavery won’t be abolished until we finally collectively throw off the yoke of slavery and involuntary servitude. (Amending the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution is not the only goal we have set our sights on.)
Let me briefly explain, from my perspective, how the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee came about. Comrade Ginger Katz was one of the founders of the North American Anarchist Black Cross in the 1980s. Before the IWOC, the Black Cross did all the heavy lifting in regard to prisoner support; they are still very involved in the prison abolition movement. Ginger was a comrade, mentor, and friend to Lorenzo “Komboa” Ervin, a Black Anarchist, a former Black Panther, and a former prisoner. It was Comrade Komboa who in 1993 wrote of Ginger Katz that she “was one of the few Anarchists who understood how the American state was organized, and how it used white skin privilege to split the working class, and to continue the dictatorship of capitalism through such ‘divide and rule’ tactics.”He urged the IWW to form the IWOC.
In 2015 I learned that Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, the Minister of Defense for the New Afrikan Black Panther Party (Prison Chapter) had entered into an agreement with the IWW and IWOC, based on the principles of mutual aid and solidarity. In essence, New Afrikan Black Panthers like me and the IWW/IWOC became allies in the struggle to end prison slavery in Amerika and finally bring about a dictatorship of the proletariat.
I first studied Rashid’s reasons for joining the IWW/IWOC; the facts he presented made perfect sense to me. For the most part, the IWW/IWOC wants what we want. And, unlike many prisoner-advocacy groups in Amerika, the IWOC has been more than willing to devote the time and resources and make the sacrifices needed to organize, struggle alongside, and support incarcerated workers like me. I am Black, a revolutionary socialist who embraces Green Anarchism and environmentalist ideas and strategies. I also am a Muslim—so you don’t have to be an anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist to join the IWOC! But I do suggest that prisoners as well as their family and friends study the history of the IWW.
The first “Free-World” fellow worker who reached out to me and extended mutual aid, solidarity, and some education on the IWOC was Brianna Peril from the Greater Kansas City IWW/IWOC in Missouri. Brianna, a former prisoner herself, introduced me to some of the writings of Sean Swain, the editor of the publication The Incarcerated Worker. Brianna also introduced me to the writings of some prisoners from the state of Alabama who became the leaders of the National Prison Work Stoppage of 2016. These prisoners from Alabama had formed an organization called the Free Alabama Movement. I found that we had a lot in common. One of the key points I noticed is that they had come to the same conclusion as me, Rashid, and many other politicized prisoners in Amerika: that mass incarceration in the US was being used as a sophisticated form of social control, targeting Black people and other oppressed minorities, including Latinx, wimmin, and LGBTQ humyn beings. They knew that not only were we being taken away from our families for decades at a time for the crimes we had committed, but along with with the isolation from society came involuntary servitude and coercion, threats, intimidation, and abuse. We were no longer considered humyn beings. That ended when we were convicted. So it is important for me to let all of you know that the IWOC is not just a union for incarcerated workers; it is an organization which continues to help us be recognized as humyn beings and not chattel slaves.
What is happening down here in Texas has a significant impact on the state of this country. I would like you to help me shed light on the conditions that exist. The degrading and dehumanizing treatment of wimmin, children, and men who seek asylum in our country must never be ignored. The humyn rights violations happening right now in South Texas must be exposed to the world! We must urge the media and civil rights organizations to take a closer look. And on June 19, 2019 we will be having our second annual solidarity action seeking to end prison slavery. I hope you will join us in addressing this issue.
AN INJURY TO ONE IS AN INJURY TO ALL! Solidarity forever! Dare to struggle, dare to win—all power to the people!