I spent my first 12 years in different prisons that offered little or no programs, groups, or classes. For more than a decade, my days consisted of going to work, going to the yard or sitting in my cell. I found different ways to learn as much as I could with literature that I would come across. Other than that, my personal growth in terms of moral structure came from being immersed in spirituality.
When I arrived here to San Quentin, there were plenty of opportunities for me to get involved in the many programs and classes that are offered here. I immediately signed up for everything. I was extremely excited to learn and exercise my creativity. I signed up for the Prison University Project, I joined self help groups. I participated in Breast Cancer walks, Day of Peace events, TEDx, public speaking on tours, I even joined Origami class and acted as jester “Touchstone” in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” in front of a large audience. It was the first time in my incarceration where I wasn't stuck in a prison job in the kitchen, laundry, or building janitor. I was constantly busy with the activities and more importantly, learning about my childhood traumas and the root causes of my crime as well as truly understanding the harm I have caused, in depth. I wasn't spending useless time in my cell, yard, or work.
One day, all that changed. I come back to my cell one night after a long day of programming. I looked on my bunk and there was an assignment card just sitting there. My heart sank. I knew exactly what it was before I even touched it. I grudgingly tossed my books and folders on the bunk and read the card. I was assigned to the kitchen. I protested by yelling an expletive under my breath and flinging the card somewhere back on my bunk. In prison, anyone can get assigned to any job if you do not have a work assignment already. Work is mandatory and though you may be able to get a “job change” (a move to another job assignment), most people cannot get completely unassigned and remain that way. If we refuse work, we will have disciplinary actions taken against us which come as loss of privileges (no yard, no visits, more confinement) and worse, more time for guys who already have release dates and for lifers, an easy denial at the parole board. However, if I were to miss a rehabilitative self help group or a college class, my consequences would simply be to be removed from that class. No disciplinary action would be taken.
My work hours were 12:30 pm to 7:30 pm, during a time where all of my groups were held. I had no choice. I had to work, which meant I had to stop going to my classes. I was under the impression that rehabilitation was becoming more of a pressing issue for prison systems. I was feeling that. I was experiencing that. I soon realized that may not have been the case.
It makes me think about the connection between labor and mandatory work when it comes to rehabilitation. Is there one? What matters more, a work assignment or a rehabilitative program? Moreover, which one supports public safety more? My experience taught me prisons valued us more as workers than for any rehabilitative efforts. I wonder, when did people who are incarcerated become trademarked as “workers?” Not mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, fathers, brothers, sons, or husbands, just “workers.” Many incarcerated people are great workers, meaning, they work hard, are innovative and may have great work ethic, but people I encounter in or out of prison are not born designated as “workers.” They’re teachers, artists, musicians, comedians, actors, writers, creators, event planners, visionaries, leaders, Earhustle hosts, FIRSTWATCH filmmakers and much more. I believe these are the qualities that need to be nourished in the women and men who are returning to those roles in society.
Our current prison model couldn't operate without mandatory labor. The men in here are needed to work in the kitchen, help clean up and maintain the prison, and provide their labor to the businesses and corporations under the Prison Industry Authorities (PIA). Many people may know this as the “prison industrial complex.” Men and women in prison work for pennies per hour. I can see the benefits for prisons and other corporations who profit off our labor: no strikes, no union organizing, no unemployment insurance, no worker’s comp, no pensions and extraordinary profit margins. The benefits for us, however, lie short. Not only are we not able to pay our restitution, personal expenses, or save towards our re-entry, our rehabilitation takes a back seat to the prison’s labor obligations.
I couldn't get unassigned from the kitchen, but eventually, I was lucky enough to get my work hours switched to the mornings. That way, I was able to attend most of my programs later on in the day. I ended up spending 11 months in the scullery area of the kitchen where I cleaned nearly 2,000 trays a day for $0.08 an hour. Though I went to work everyday, arrived on time, and did my job well, I felt like I was wasting my time, time I needed to study. My belief system told me what I needed was an education, not mandatory labor for my “rehabilitation.” My experience, however, told me that Adnan as a worker is more of an asset than Adnan as an intellectual college graduate who understands the harm he’s caused and who is giving back to society.
Photo credit: California State Prison, Los Angeles - Re:store Justice Transformative Justice Class 2018