Arkansas is one of eight states, alongside Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas, that makes inmates do hard labor for free. I’m at Cummins Unit in Grady, Arkansas, where inmates are assigned to the “hoe squad” — a job working in the fields.
All Arkansas prisons have hoe squads except for those under work release programs and the women’s units. Cummins has a farm with more than 16,000 acres on land that used to belong to slave plantations.
For years, Cummins has been the main prison for producing goods. Not only do they produce crops and clothing for the Arkansas Department of Corrections, they also sell livestock to other prisons and businesses.
When we receive a disciplinary record, we are put on the hoe squad. We go out each working day and do a variety of jobs such as planting corn, beans, greens and potatoes. After they grow, we have to pick them. On some days, we take our garden hoes and are forced to chop fields of grass down to nothing but dirt.
If we don’t move fast enough while chopping or walk with the line of inmates, we’ll be written up. Swing blades and garden hoes, which are made of wood, cause blisters, but we are not issued gloves to protect our hands. We must buy them from the commissary with our own money.
I’ve chopped fields, ditches and sides of highways. There have been times where the field sergeants give the inmates a direct order to go into a small pond to pull out lily pads. Sometimes the water is chest high, but we must do it or be disciplined for refusing a direct order or job duty.
We are supervised by lieutenants and sergeants who ride on horseback, armed with handguns. Not only are we meant to plant and pick the crops, but the hoe squad itself is meant as a punishment. Sergeants verbally abuse their charges and try to push us to our limits physically. It can feel like they are goading us into receiving another disciplinary report so we have to stay on the squad.
When we work, inmates have to get in a tight line alongside each other and hoe with the same rhythm. I’ve heard the squad sergeant tell inmates that he wants us so close that, “One of their dicks should be in the next one’s back pocket.” I’ve been called “stupid” or “dumb, motherfucker hoe ass n‐‐‐‐‐” because I’ve voiced my opinion on not wanting to be cussed at.
During the summer, we go out from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. and during winter, 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. then back out at noon until 2:30 p.m. We pick and plant a lot of crops.
For our free labor in the field, we are given used boots and clothes to wear.
The Cummins Unit has other ways of extracting free labor. Inmates tend to livestock such as pigs, cows, horses and chickens. Most of the livestock gets sold. We don’t get much of it ourselves to eat. A big portion of the eggs get sold to other prisons and businesses.
We get real eggs once a week, but we eat powdered eggs the rest of the time. We only get fried chicken on some holidays.
We also work at the dairy farm, which supplies milk to Arkansas prisons.
As far as clothes, Cummins Unit runs a garment factory where they sew socks and make towels, uniforms and laundry bags. The inmates package thousands of items that are sent all around to Arkansas’ prisons and some outside jails and other facilities. We don’t have steady access to these brand new items. It’s all about making profit.
Arkansas is still a slave-mentality state. We are no longer picking cotton, but now we pick beans and corn to make the corrections department rich.
Most other state and federal prisons pay inmates wages — and so should Arkansas. When inmates are forced to work for free for five, 10, 30 or 50 years, they are unable to leave prison with any money to help them get restarted. Don’t be surprised if they break laws to get it.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.