In mid-June of 2016, tension between workers and their boss in a small New York City retail shop reached the boiling point. Even on a normal week these workers would have toiled under the insults of their overseer for sub-minimum wage, sweltering in the summer heat, and abused by customers and managers alike as they hustled merchandise at a rapid pace. But in the preceding days they had been subjected to an especially breakneck speedup, open wage theft, taunts that they were “privileged” and “should be happy to have their job,” and threats of replacement by “a bunch of Mexicans.” They pleaded their case to the boss, demanding to be treated as human beings worthy of respect, but these entreaties met deaf ears. As labor conditions worsened and employer retaliation escalated, the workers met behind the boss’s back and planned to stop work in a dramatic fashion, by all quitting at once. The action was designed to paralyze the shop at a moment calculated to cause maximum havoc for the boss, to send a clear message that they were more powerful than he had judged, and to walk away with a little bit of dignity intact. True to their word, about two thirds of the staff quit at once, right before the busiest day of the week. The result was chaos for a hated overseer, and the sweet aftertaste of an assertion of people power all too rare in their line of work.
For the workplace organizer, a mass quitting is usually an option of last resort. If your aim is to build collective power in your shop, the last thing you want is the most militant, or even belligerent workers to leave without a fight, which they usually do anyway, one by one, without anyone organizing it. But this is no ordinary shop. It is a commissary in the Eric M. Taylor Center (EMTC, formerly known as C-76) at New York City’s notorious Rikers Island correctional facility, where inmates shop for basic necessities not provided by the jail. These workers are themselves inmates, and their boss was a corrections officer with nearly unbridled power over their lives. At work or back at home in their dormitories, inmates at EMTC are carefully monitored for being “influential,” for their alleged gang affiliations, and for being a bit too quick to stand up for themselves. They are routinely moved around the facility both deliberately and randomly, with no appeal possible. They are kept silent in the hallways and deliberately segregated from other prisoners as a means of limiting communication. No matter what kinship defies these strictures, the average stay for a prisoner is just under two months, so the turnover in Rikers dorms is even higher than the most unbearable retail or fast food job on the outside.
Taken together, these factors drastically undermine any possibility that inmates will join together and build any kind of collective resistance against the well-documented daily indignities of life at Rikers. And the fear of retaliation that plagues the typical precarious worker is multiplied in the face of seemingly boundless power by a notoriously abusive prison staff. The dour sentiment that no organized resistance is possible, which we encounter in daily life outside of prison, is amplified considerably by these repressive conditions. By all accounts, this work stoppage was rare. And limited though it was in scope and efficacy, it certainly contradicted the general sentiment among inmates at Rikers that collective resistance is impossible, and pointed toward the possibility for coordinated resistance within what is perhaps New York City’s most dense concentration of exploitation, oppression, and proletarian misery.
As an inmate myself during this time, I spoke to one of the militant commissary workers on the day of their action, and dozens of inmates working numerous occupations over the course of my own month-long incarceration on the island. Thankfully, like most of the inmates I met, I was not held long enough to be considered for most jobs, and thanks to some great friends on the outside, I had enough cash in my account to use the phone and shop in the commissary. Nonetheless, though duly limited to a small sample of discussions and observations at EMTC, I received an illustrative glimpse into the daily lives and attitudes of inmate workers in this facility.
My observations must be situated in the particular context that there is little compulsion to work at Rikers in the sense that many imagine prison workers as forced to work. The state of New York retains the right to impose labor on all “able-bodied” men at EMTC, but this compulsion is rarely if ever exercised. Jobs can be switched, or simply quit, with a quitting inmate having little trouble finding employment elsewhere. I met only one inmate who had been assigned a job that he did not want, and who was weighing whether to refuse. To refuse would be to possibly risk losing “good time,” potentially prolonging his stay, and to risk being moved from a relatively calm and peaceful “working dorm” into what could be a more hectic and violent living situation. These are certainly serious threats for inmates trying to get out in one piece as quickly as possible. But by all accounts, these penalties are rarely if ever imposed. Besides this one man, every other assigned worker I spoke with either wanted his job, wanted a second job, or wanted a better job. This is a place where inmates want to work. And the reason is scarcely reducible to their pitiful wages.
Inmate workers are notoriously underpaid and more often than not labor under conditions hidden from public sight by mortar and razor wire. At Rikers, full-time workers can expect anywhere between $80 and $112 per week for working well beyond 40 hours. Besides commissary, inmates work in the cafeteria, laundry, clinic, law library, carwash for corrections buses (and unofficially, I was told, the guards’ cars), general building maintenance including painting, construction, and janitorial services, and perhaps the oddest job I learned of, burying the city’s unclaimed bodies in New York’s potter’s field. The most basic janitorial upkeep of EMTC’s minimum security dorms, where upwards of sixty inmates live in one open room, is maintained by “house detail” inmates, who then become responsible for, often quite aggressively, enforcing the rules of hygiene and cleanliness on those around them. Sometimes house detail work is even done for free as a means of buttering up the guards to get on the rolls officially. It is not uncommon for inmates in the hallway or dining hall to make a quick break away from the guard escorting them to give their name and number to an official they believe can get them a coveted job. Inmates allowed to work outside the facility walls are dressed in bright orange stripes, kept starched and impeccably clean compared to the grubby greens of the homebody inmate worker. This clear marking of the relatively privileged inmate workers cuts to the core of the incentive for inmate workers: mobility across the facility and outside of it, escape from the boredom and brutality of life in the dorms, and most generally, an increased control over daily life.
Wages are of course important to Rikers inmates, especially low-income inmates with no commissary funds and dependents on the outside. But one need not understate the value of the wages in order to appreciate the extra-monetary incentives for inmate labor. First of all, it is not as if the most enthusiastic inmate workers don’t realize they are being egregiously exploited by wages far below even the pitiful minimum wage. I spoke to one inmate who worked well over 40 hours per week, as a painter, for $112. He didn’t even bother keeping track of his hours. He would half-heartedly brag about the money, but he didn’t seem to believe his own bluster, and everyone knew that deep down he knew that the money was nothing to brag about. His compensation was of a different sort. As a worker with outside clearance, he was able to leave the often chaotic dorms for a good part of the day and night. He sometimes traveled across the seemingly endless bridge leading off the island into a vanishing point of flashing sirens—an occasion about which most inmates must be content to fantasize for the tenure of their incarceration. He was able to eat food from the outside, the topic of endless hours of wanful reminiscences over sparse plates of bland prison fare. He could relate to his co-workers not as fellow victims of a debased situation, but as part of a cooperative project. And the impatient, aggravated way he related to his free time on days off from work suggested what is perhaps the principal motivation for him and many inmate workers: escaping boredom, making time go by faster, and getting out of the dormitories for as long as possible.
An inmate, with outside clearance, worked all day and well into the night in the kitchen at another jail. He rolled his eyes at the money, and anyway had enough support on the outside to do without it. So why did he look forward to his job? He wasn’t in jail, he told me, when he was there. A chef by training, he worked at his own pace in the kitchen, under his own direction, and could get lost in his work. The guards at his worksite treated him as more of a colleague than a prisoner, even helping him correct a clerical error that had extended his sentence beyond his release date. He had freedom to prepare his own food, and even eat food from outside. And for a few hours each day he had some down time to watch TV or otherwise enjoy the indescribably rare privilege of solitude, far from the imposed stupidity of dormitory life. Back at Rikers he winced at the constant shrieking of the house guards, the hostilities of the inmates, and the countless indignities built into even the smoothest day at EMTC. He was happy to rise before the sun and get away from all this.
A fellow new arrival I spent my first week with in the intake dormitory had been to Rikers dozens of times and couldn’t wait to get a job. But he wasn’t really thinking about the pitiful salary, and he seemed to somehow have everything he needed already. What he was after was the excuse to move around freely. One day he left with a pass for the clinic and came back having shopped at the commissary by himself, which to the average inmate would be completely impossible, and the mere attempt would probably lead to disciplinary action. This man knew the island inside out, and only needed the privilege of circulation throughout the institution to run in different social circles, to nourish mutually beneficial quid pro quo relationships with powerful guards, and most of all, to circulate items. Beyond the items everyone would guess, like tobacco, it is just as common for a tightly rationed commodity as banal as jelly or matzo bread to be wildly popular, giving whoever has access to these items an upper hand in informal economies, social hierarchies, or simply being a mensch. Some items seemed to only circulate through this sort of gray market, such as “two piece” inmate uniforms. Inmates are given ill-fitting, uncomfortable jumpsuits upon arrival, but there are shirts and pants of the same color which circulate through back channels, and mark the wearer as someone who knows their way around the place. In my month-long incarceration I saw no legitimate channels through which to secure these garments, and their informal circulation occurred unhampered by any authorities. Needless to say this also applies to less innocuous contraband, but I’ll leave the snitching to someone else.
The oddest character I met actually cleaned the grimy bathroom for free, when he wasn’t on the schedule, just for something to do. A Russian friend who had served time back home assured me that doing this there would place you at the bottom rung of the prison hierarchy, with the untouchables. But to the Americans, it lacked any kind of stigma or even appearance of abnormality. Better than sitting around, doing nothing. With food and shelter guaranteed, there is almost nothing to do all day besides watch garbage TV, listen to the same increasingly boring war stories from those around you, play repetitive games, or steal some reading over the incessant shouting of inmates and guards. There is scarcely any access to education, exercise, quiet reflection, any kind of creative outlet, or source of personal fulfillment, to say nothing of escape from physical confinement within a small and overcrowded space. The basic necessities of life like eating, showering, shaving, even clipping your nails, though guaranteed, are regulated by the whims of capricious guards, and subject to draconian restrictions with no appeal. Necessary items are paltry and scarce, for no good reason. Meaningful activity is even rarer to come by than the kosher meal matzo crackers everyone seems to desperately want. (“We don’t even really eat those,” a puzzled Jewish friend told me.) In sum, prisoner work cannot be understood without reference to this totalizing environment. It is possible the actual labor is the least important element of the complex relationship between inmate workers and the most basic activities of their daily lives. Cast in this light, the struggle over conditions of labor becomes the struggle over the nature of free time.
This brings us back to mid June, when a critical mass of commissary workers joined together and lit their boss’s hair on fire, figuratively speaking of course. The commissary in question is akin to when a bodega stays open after midnight but conducts all business through a plexiglass window, making communication a bit difficult, and the line slow-moving and impatient. Shopping, as it is called, is done on a designated day and hour, with upwards of fifty shoppers lined up to be served, called one by one by name to rattle off a shopping list as quickly as possible through muted slots in dingy plexiglass. The workers behind the plexiglass fill buckets on a kind of assembly line amidst shouts, accusations of theft, gossip conducted loudly between men who don’t see each other often, names ringing out mispronounced over and over, and in this general environment of confusion, violence lurking just below the surface, and sometimes above it. When not attending to shoppers, these workers are also responsible for unloading trucks and stocking the storerooms, which requires climbing a ladder with boxes of goods in tow. The guards decline this work, and stick to running the final tally at checkout, and delegating responsibility.
Work in the commissary is unique in this facility in that it comes with the bonus of “tips,” items which the commissary worker rather firmly suggests each shopper donate in exchange for their hard work. And it really is the least we can do. Tips usually consist of tiny bags of chips, cookies, or sweets ranging in price from $.50 to $2. Such items, unremarkably common on the outside, assume an inflated importance in the prison environment of enforced scarcity, and serve as the cornerstone of the informal economy which brings licit and illicit items into one market with a generally agreed rate of exchange. This is to say that what is immensely valuable to commissary workers is almost worthless to the guards, who have no shortage of access to miniature bags of Doritos or little strudel cookies in their daily lives. However this does not stop the guards who run the commissary from extorting their share of the tips from the workers (when not outright campaigning to end the practice of tips, which the more righteous among them consider to be itself a form of extortion). Theft of petty commissary by staff, a commonly reported indignity suffered by inmates, seems mostly to be a raw display of power, though looking at these guards gives one the sense that the cookies and Doritos are not going to waste. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” one guard told a comrade, charitable enough at least to quote Jesus Christ while ripping him off. Meanwhile the same guard reserved the right to leave pay slips unsigned, as a punitive measure, a show of power, or simply an expression of apathy, which could result in a worker not getting paid on time. This had become common practice by the time these workers took action.
The always simmering labor relations of this particular shop came to a head after a day-long building-wide lockdown backed up the commissary even further than usual. The commonly accepted story ran that one inmate was cut by another in the dorm upstairs from mine, and what followed was a small scale rebellion. When the riot squad showed up in response to the stabbing, the men of the dorm came alive. They defied orders to disperse by the riot gear clad “turtles,” and were sprayed with the powerful chemical weapon MK9. A noxious breeze wafted through our windows below as we rushed to screw them shut, amidst defiant chanting and singing ringing out throughout the courtyard, spreading to other dorms. A disembodied voice upstairs excitedly shouted play by play out his window to a man in our dorm who was broadcasting the news live to the rest of us. Soon the hubbub died down, and the reaction of the island’s veterans told me this was not an uncommon occurrence.
Predictably enough, inmates throughout the building were placed on lockdown the following day, subjected to an invasive and humiliating search (during which a different class of workers, those who clean up during shakedowns, were roundly accused of theft, for which they are rightly or wrongly well known—my own experience suggesting the former), denied basic services, and above all, denied our trip to commissary. A lockdown responds to a particular act of violence, limited to a specific time and place, by creating a general atmosphere of violence throughout the entire facility. While logically justified to prevent repercussions from the original act, they far more resemble what one friend of mine called “some revenge shit.” Inmates are kept home from work, packed in close quarters, disallowed to shower or use the dayroom, invasively searched, bullied in the hallway by guards, denied access to the phone, denied hot water to make food while meals operate on an unpredictable schedule, and sometimes kept on their beds. In this environment, heated arguments break out between inmates or with guards, and individual loudmouth inmates (and guards) deliver angry soliloquies which ramp up the tension. The guards who try to be “cool” with the inmates by flirting or talking about basketball or allowing special privileges have no choice but to enforce these rules, participate in shakedowns, and defend the most overzealous of their peers, the foremost of whom boast of a military background and act accordingly. In short, the reality of daily life, sometimes buried beneath pleasantries and fringe benefits, is brought into the sharpest relief at these moments.
Already agitated by the lockdown and quickly approaching point zero, these commissary workers returned to work the following day to be met with a breakneck speedup and a dramatic extension of their work hours meant to quickly fill the gap left by a missed day of service. In short, they were forced to bear the brunt of the very lockdown which had debased them the day prior. Slowly they began to openly rebel, egging each other on, picking fights with the guard in charge and antagonizing him whenever possible. “Your soul is required in Hell!” one worker bellowed over and over to the laughter and approval of others. At the end of a long, stressful day playing catch-up after the lockdown, the guard in question confiscated half of the tips for the day, totalling a hundred or more dollars each in Rikers currency. To make matters worse, he had caught wind that the inmate workers were planning to quit, so he refused to sign all their pay slips for the day, meaning they would have no choice but to come back. He knew that the following workday, a Monday, was to be “bag day,” when items are delivered to the houses instead of the inmates coming to shop. This is quite labor intensive compared with regular shopping, and yields no tips. A shortfall on a Monday would hit the boss hardest. If the wage theft was provocation, this was a clear challenge: if they wanted their back wages, they’d have to come back to work. But he underestimated the dependence of his workers on this wage. He thought he had them beaten by the threat of withdrawing their checks. But in the end, they said pay slips be damned, lockdowns be damned, daily life at Rikers Island be god-fucking-damned, we’re quitting anyway. And they did.