Monday, January 14, 2013

Prison, work, songs

This weekend I heard a presentation of work songs from the prison farms of the early 20th-century south.  Pain, sadness, humor, anger  all were intense in this music.

The vast prison farms were an evolution of the plantations that had been there before. When the 13th ammendment banned slavery “except as a punishment for crime,” Southern whites did the obvious. They imprisoned their former slaves for offenses like loitering and failing to yield the sidewalk.

If you ever go to Houston,
Boys, you better walk right,
And you better not squabble
And you better not fight.
Benson Crocker will arrest you
Jimmy Boone will take you down.
You can bet your bottom dollar
That you're Sugarland bound.

Of course, hearing the work songs of imprisoned people, I thought of the prisoners I work with in a northern, urban jail.

They spend a lot of time watching TV. I think it keeps people pacified, but I also wonder if there weren't something better they could be doing.  Being idle is especially hard for some of the immigration detainees, who have mostly been manual laborers since childhood. “I worked my whole life,” one of them said, “and now I'm sitting here with my arms folded.”

Work is one thing I wish we could have more of at the jail. After you've been there a while, and if you've stayed out of trouble, you can work if you want to. Men work in the kitchen or print shop, running errands, and cleaning things. Women are taken out of the facility to pick trash and paint walls. They earn about a dollar an hour, but the biggest perk is that it passes the time.  There are more inmates who ask for work than get it.

(More work might have the benefit of reducing prison costs. But I'd like to stay clear of actually making a profit, as the labor camps of the old south did. Economic incentive to imprison people is a very bad thing.)

On the way home from hearing these songs, I talked with a friend who had worked with prisoners at Angola Prison in Louisiana (so named after the origin of the slaves who originally farmed that plantation). She said work there was mandatory, and inmates there spent their first months hoeing the collard fields before they had the option of switching to cushier jobs.

Ironically, hoeing collards is the kind of job idealistic college students love to sign up for. I spent my first summer out of college as a part-time farmhand on a small hippie farm. But I chose it, and I worked with other people who wanted to be there. We sang a lot, mostly happy songs, not the slow-burning songs of slavery. We loved eating the fruits of our labor, just as the inmates of Angola Prison feed themselves. Everything is different when it's chosen freely.

(Side note:
I couldn't write about field hollers and not include Stan Roger's parody, the White Collar Holler.  He reframes computer programming as soul-crushing drudgery, presumably in contrast to the old-fashioned fishing and sailing jobs he loves to write about.  The song doesn't resonate for me, because most of the programmers I know have a good bit of freedom and enjoy their jobs.  Again with the autonomy and the work satisfaction.)

The other thing I wish we could have more of at the jail is creativity. The emphasis is on passing time rather than doing anything with it. Some inmates make ingenious things with their hands – teddy bears sculpted from soap and delicately tinted with toothpaste. A Christmas tree from a carefully deconstructed toilet paper tube. And those more frightening creations in the contraband exhibit they show you at orientation: the blow-darts made from staples, the shivs made of toothbrushes and razor blades, the hotwired contraptions used to heat urine to boiling temperatures so it can be thrown in an enemy's face.

That kind of destructiveness is the explanation given for why inmates can't have any materials: no colored pencils, no yarn, no crochet hook, no wood to carve, no guitars. But sometimes I wonder if they'd be less destructive if they had something constructive to do.

Of course, like those older prisoners, they still have word and song. Those inalienable tools are alive and well in the form of rap. I have yet to hear the compositions of any of the inmates I work with, but several of them have explained how important it is to them.

One more song to finish with.  Hear the anger channeled into work:

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