This article was published in collaboration with Vice.
Up until lunch, it had been a typical day: got out of bed at 3 a.m. for breakfast, turned out to the furniture factory at 4, and put in six hours on the assembly line, inhaling sawdust breath after breath. When work was done, we were herded to the chow hall.
It was on my way back to the cell block that I was struck with a coughing fit — something that had been happening with increasing frequency over the past several months. This one became so severe that the meal I’d just scarfed down came back up between gasps for air.
This scene played out along a 50-foot stretch of hallway until I finally fell to my knees, unable to breathe.
But in prison, life goes on, often with bitter humor, despite, or maybe because of, someone’s personal misery. Laughing is remarkably useful.
That’s why a guy stopped next to me when I was still on my knees in the hallway, clinging to the wall for support. Putting his hand on my shoulder, he surveyed the mess I’d made. As a newbie in the system back then, I naively assumed he was going to ask if I was all right, if I needed any assistance.
“Hey,” he said, voice indignant, “I didn’t get any fucking carrots on my fucking tray.”
Let me back up here, and explain how I came to be in this situation. In 1997, I was sentenced to life in prison, and sent to Livingston, Texas, to do my time. There, they put us all to work.
After a few months of working in the fields, I was assigned to a job in the furniture factory. Apart from having to wake up long before dawn, the work itself wasn’t bad. My job was in the assembly department, which consisted of taking pallets of raw materials from the warehouse and constructing various items of office furniture according to the specifications on the orders coming in.
There were two catches: One, we weren’t paid anything for our labor. Two, we were located right next to the sanding department, which meant that the air was always saturated with sawdust. And unlike the inmates assigned to sanding, those of us in assembly had no breathing masks.
Being young and not yet concerned with my health, I didn’t immediately connect the dots between my work environment and the respiratory trouble that gradually became part of my life. It began with coughing fits that kept me (and my cellie) awake most of the night, and evolved into moments of pure terror, in which I was unable to draw a breath through my swollen windpipe. I didn’t know what it was yet, but as the condition continued to worsen, I began to think it might kill me.
Before all that, the job was just the job. There were half a dozen guys on my line, split into two teams of three. All of us were young (late teens to early twenties) and facing lengthy sentences (measured in decades, not years).
Our work day began with a cup of coffee or two, after which we’d check out the tools we needed: hammers, levels, drills, screwdrivers. By far our favorites were the nail guns. True, they made it easier to put a desk together for whatever faraway office complex needed one — but we prized the guns for their entertainment value.
The nails were too small to pierce skin, so with our goggles on we could have nail gun fights until our shifts were through.
And who says we had to build the furniture correctly? Once we had initially satisfied our supervisor that we could construct pieces according to specs, oversight of our activities grew more lax. And when your only payment for work is possibly getting a day off for meeting certain quotas, there isn’t much reason not to cut corners.
For instance, why bother to build six drawers for every desk when you can just nail a faceplate over one of the holes and send it on down the line, no one the wiser? Well, no one except the state employee who would end up with the desk, and would try in vain to open the nonexistent drawer.
I know there are people who will object: “Didn’t you take any pride in your work?” Truth be told, we did. There wasn’t a guy on that line who couldn’t construct a beautiful, fully-functional piece of furniture.
Yet it was because of our pride that we often chose not to. Put yourselves in our shoes for a moment — we were (a lot of us, at least) first-time offenders locked away until we turned old and gray, with no chance of ever having careers. Yet somehow we were expected to make products that enriched the same system that was denying us. Plus, we weren’t paid.
The amazing thing was actually that orders did, on occasion, roll out on time — that anything ever got built at all.
But then the coughing began, and I knew I had to go to medical. Blame it on our macho bullshit, but for most guys I know, it’s a tough call between death and having to go see a doctor. In Texas, we’re even more reluctant, because it costs us a hundred bucks a year for health coverage — a sum that in prison could be used to buy food and hygiene items for a few months.
And in my experience, the infirmary employees are only there to — if you’re fortunate enough to practically be dying right in front of them — pass you along to a free-world hospital for actual medical care. Otherwise, they’re likely to give you a handful of non-prescription pain pills and send you on your way.
But I did go, and sure enough, it was a severe swelling of my pharynx probably caused by all those days breathing in sawdust.
This was years ago — that furniture factory has since closed. And maybe I deserved it. But you should know that as a prison laborer in the Texas state pen, it’s a daily battle just to live, between the questionable food, marginal health care, gang and race violence, and altercations with guards. Surviving at least 30 years in here with body and sanity intact takes no small share of luck.
Of course, maintaining one’s dark sense of humor also helps. To this day, I can’t help but smile every time I go through the chow line and they put some fucking carrots on my tray.
Jayson Hawkins, 41, is incarcerated at the Ellis Unit in Huntsville, Texas, where he is serving life in prison for a murder he committed when he was 20. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice did not respond to a request for comment about working and medical conditions for inmates at the now-defunct furniture factory described in this story.