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My favorite prison job was canteen clerk. Everything in California State Prisons is political and racial; the canteen is no exception. I was the Black worker. There was a Mexican worker and a Pacific Islander. There are five slots on the canteen list each day. The prison believed each slot should be filled with the names of paying customers. I believed that was wrong because everybody deserved the chance to shop regardless if they pay or not. 

Since I’m a Black worker I needed two slots. Mexicans also get two slots and the others get one slot. If the others have two slots and the Mexicans have two slots that means the Mexicans actually have four slots, and Blacks have one slot. 

I had to make back door deals. I made a deal with the shot-callers that if the Mexican leaves the canteen nothing will change except how business is conducted. The Mexican worker left. The other was transferred to another prison. 

There are five slots available to visit the canteen. When done right the list goes like this:

  • Monday-Tuesday: one Southern Mexican, one Southern Mexican, three Black, four Northern Mexican, five White/Other
  • Wednesday: one Southern Mexican, one Southern Mexican, three Black, four Northern Mexican, five Southern Mexican
  • Thursday: it will be all Southern Mexicans because everybody shopped
  • Friday: open line

Canteen is one of the most stressful times in prison because staff use it as a source of control. For example, they ran the store in December and February but not in March. It opened again in April. By the time I can go, they will be out of everything. When they ran out of stationery, it broke communication with our families during these troubled times. 

When I was working in the canteen, my job was to take the stress of canteen away from the convicts. The staff member in charge at the time was named Sonny. He treated his workers like human beings and we worked together to outwit the correctional officers (COs). First, we shopped off the Yard. When the COs closed the canteen down; we bagged and dragged. When they stopped us from doing that, we called shoppers out of the building. We were unstoppable. We were the canteen gods.

I love communicating. I listened to everybody’s problems and searched names to make sure everybody had a chance to shop. I’m a man of my word and relentlessly reliable. My hustle was that I didn’t charge, but if someone says they’d pay, I would take the money. The way I did it, being fair, I made $100 a week and the Yard was happy. That was $300 a month easy. Plus I could shop when I wanted to. 

I got store credit and a million friends I never knew I had. But nothing good ever lasts in here. Sonny moved to a better position and someone new was in charge. He treated us like workers and obeyed the COs. When the canteen closed, it closed. When things went wrong, it was our fault. He was not a people person and the canteen stress came back. I am serving a life sentence; I don’t do well with stress. 

I tried to deal with the changes in leadership. The new staff member in charge started off trying to be cool then once we relaxed he went into overseer mode. I told him he was a visitor who was trying to make my life hard. 

I don’t have anything or anyone to live for. I lost everything when I came to prison.

I started at 11 cents an hour and worked my way up to 30 cents an hour. I told him to calm his lady parts. He got upset and threatened to write me a rules violation report (RVR). 

I came back the very next day with a job change slip. He tried to talk me out of it. It was the best thing. I need my RVRs to only be for violence. He understood. He was a good guy, just not a good canteen staff for lifers. Overall it was the best prison job I ever had.

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Carnell Wingfield Jr.

Carnell Wingfield Jr. is a writer and contributing poet at High Desert State Prison in California. He is a sociology major at Feather River College and also graduated with distinction from Blackstone Career Institute's paralegal course.