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KC Johnson rides a lawn mower at her North Carolina prison camp.
Photo courtesy of K.C. Johnson

The cool, damp air blows on my face and arms as I cruise down the trail, avoiding potholes, fallen branches and the occasional rabbit. The light dances through the canopy of green oaks, which temporarily shield me from the scorching July sun. 

If I close my eyes for just a moment, It feels like I’m in my Jeep, trail riding without a care.

But I’m not in my Jeep. I am on a Corrections-issued John Deere tractor, traversing dense woods behind the prison where I am housed. No, I am not making my great escape. This is my job, working outside maintenance.

After 15 years, I was finally promoted to a minimum-security prison, or “camp” as we call them in North Carolina. I wanted this job from the day I arrived here, but I had to wait a few months — an unofficial observation period — to ensure I could be trusted.

Over the past 10 years, I have worked all types of maintenance jobs, including plumbing, electrical and general repairs. Any yardwork was limited to inside the gate, and at some facilities I mostly used push mowers. Although I thrived in the various jobs, none provided me the same sense of accountability and fulfillment as my current maintenance job. 

Part of the crew

There are typically six or seven women on outside maintenance, with varying levels of experience. We maintain about 100 acres of property, inside and outside the prison fence.

We each have our own mowers and trimmers. I drive a John Deere 1420 Series 4×4 riding mower. With the steep North Carolina mountain terrain, including banks with over 45-degree inclines, there is ample need for four-wheel drive. 

We are responsible for equipment repairs and upkeep, which ranges from oil changes to replacing belts or drive shafts and sharpening mower blades. In addition to yard work, we do repairs for the facility, including welding and carpentry projects. We also fix camp washers and dryers and replace doors. In winter, we shovel snow, de-ice and salt roads and sidewalks.

On a typical day, I wake up around 6 a.m., pick up a bagged lunch (pressed “meat,” fireproof cheese, a peanut butter pack, an apple and four slices of bread) and take the work van to the site with my co-workers. The garage, along with the other maintenance shops, are on prison property but outside the main fence. Every day we are strip-searched at least once. 

We are staffed by a motley crew of state maintenance workers. They are good ol’ boys and old mountain men with a lifetime of knowledge.

From the moment I walk into the garage — when I am hit by smells of diesel, grease and coffee — I know I am a true maintenance worker, and I’m treated as such. There is never any slack for being female, or an inmate. Shop-talk and conversations about outdoor living have made me feel at ease and competent.

Ten, maybe 15 years ago, I would never have been allowed on a mower, certainly not outside the gates. I was lost and confused, purposeless, struggling to find a reason to do better. There was a lot of fighting, interspersed with self-harm.

As the years went by, I began to discover who I was and what made me happy. I started running and working out again. I worked toward my bachelor of arts degree. But nothing held me accountable in the way that working a job did. Having a maintenance position showed others I was dependable and trustworthy. As my image improved, I trusted myself more. I liked the new me.

I have always enjoyed outdoor work and thrived when doing physical labor. I feel a sense of worth when I can see my work progress. As a female from an upper middle-class family, I was often steered away from these blue-collar jobs. My addiction also drove me in another direction. But when I am working and sweating, I am focused and confident. Doing a job well gives you a boost of self-esteem that most of us lack inside. When your decisions are made for you, as most are in prison, it is difficult to know where the credit — or blame — lies.

A day’s work

Before we go outside, I always give my mower, Lucy, a once-over. I check the tires, fluids and belts. Then I gas her up and load my trimmer on the Gator all-terrain vehicle for a long day in the sun. Someone, usually the newbie, drives the Gator with our cooler and equipment, while the boss follows in his truck.

We feel a sense of power when we ride onto the grounds. Our engines roar, and everyone watches us pull in. We know exactly where to go. At times, we look like a choreographed dance. 

I become one with Lucy as the mower’s four-wheel drive powers up inclines, sometimes sliding on dewy grass and mud. Despite knowing that the boss (along with the eye in the sky) is watching, I feel free — alone. The smell of sweet moss and pine trees return me to childhood.

With several thousand feet of fence line, steep banks and craggy ditches, there is extensive weed-whacking to do. The trimmer is an extension of my arm, vibrating and slicing through grass and weeds, often in ditches with knee-high water. I balance precariously on loose rock along the highway edge, on an almost vertical slope. My thoughts are gratefully drowned out by the noise of 18-wheelers flying by.

While yard maintenance is not my life’s purpose, it is something I can fall back on and use to take care of my own property in the future. This has prepared me for the next step before release. I have not only gained valuable experience, I have also developed character and become someone I can be proud of. When I am working, my anxiety is soothed, my anger and resentments forgotten.

After working all day in the heat, sweat pouring down my face and my shirt drenched, I am dirty, worn out and accomplished. I pull Lucy up to the bay doors, blow the dirt and grass off, and park. As my co-workers and I sit down to decompress and discuss the day, I can feel our collective sense of pride. There is nothing better than a hard day’s work.

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.

K.C. Johnson is a writer incarcerated in North Carolina.