On a Prison Work Ethic

On A Prison Work Ethic

Seneca phrased it best when he eloquently wrote “work nourishes noble minds.” If everyone sat around every day, in prison or outside of it, not only would nothing get done, a lethargy would take over our souls. We’re meant to put our minds and bodies to use. Without inmates working, a prison ceases to function. Some inmates use work to make their days go by fast, others work toward high paying jobs ($1.00 per hour is considered prison rich), while yet another group seeks to do as little as possible.

We’re all assigned a work detail, but there is a large difference between the options available. There’s a hustle, a nuanced benefit, to each job and you have to find what one works for you. Certain ones, like the kitchen, have a six hour shift but allow you to eat better. Others, such as being an orderly, take only fifteen minutes per day. Working at commissary allows you to shop any day of the week. Whatever job you end up with, and whatever your feelings about it, do it well.

Inmates don’t ‘win’ over the prison when they half-a** their work. Everyone around them loses. If the bathroom orderly refuses to actually clean the bathroom, how much does that affect the staff they are angry at? The inmates make or break how clean the prison is, how palatable the food could be, and what the compound looks like. Sure, I am not enthused about making twelve cents an hour to toil away in the South Dakota dirt on a ninety degree humid afternoon. But with the hourly rate and the work involved comes sunshine and lessons in humility.

When I arrived to Yankton I was assigned to work as a kitchen orderly from 5:50am – 12:00pm. Soon thereafter, I was told I was horrible at using a mop. I fully understand the premise surrounding the utilization of a standard janitor’s mop and bucket, but apparently my mopping technique/form wasn’t up to par. I hadn’t yet perfected the flowing, grand sweeping gesture that is considered “on point.” It’s okay, they said “he’s still sh*tting McDonalds” implying that at the time I was so new to prison I hadn’t fully digested the food I had eaten on the streets. “Not likely” I replied “I wouldn’t eat McDonalds.”

To the outsider reading that conversation, I likely come across as an arrogant person. However, there is, at times, a bit of banter between the drug cases and the white collar guys. What I’ve picked up, and since passed on to others, is that the only successful response is to give it right back. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Giving each other a hard time is a full on past time in prison and if you’re not playing, you’re losing.

One thing that never goes out of style and is appreciated no matter your background or the type of charges you faced is hard work. So amidst the jabs and relentless prodding you plant each flower like it’s going in your mom’s garden, clean the toilets like the women in your life are about to use them, cook as if it’s for someone’s last meal and mop the floor like you’re going to lay down on it afterwards. And for those who know me well, you are first hand witnesses to how over-the-top-I-possibly-need-help clean I keep my garage floor, so you know I can make that last one happen. My mopping skills have also improved drastically and received multiple nods of approval.

Prison has elevated me in the art of chilling out and I mean really slowing down. Take it easy, go with the flow, lock me in an empty room for eleven days due to Covid or stand in hour-long lines at 6am and not care at all chill out. Still, when it’s your turn at work, no matter the task, there are plenty of good reasons to show up and do it well.

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