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Life Inside

Fields of Blood: My Life As a Prison Laborer

“The days would run together. The heat, the drudgery, the daily unpaid toiling in dirt and fields under the hot Texas sun.”

A person who finds himself freshly recruited by the Texas criminal justice system into the slave labor force of its many state penitentiaries will soon find they have been thrown into a time warp.

As I made my way deeper into this system, in 1981, I found myself bound for a prison called Central Unit, to be my new home for the next 40 years. The bus trip there was a true pain, since we had been handcuffed and essentially herded into a rolling cage. Soon, my senses told me we were getting close to the place where I was born, and it dawned on me fully when I saw the Imperial Sugar refinery.

I was born in Sugar Land, Texas, and now I’d be in its prison.

We slowed down on Highway 6, right after we passed a small airport and turned down a long straight road. On one side I could see houses for the ranked officials of the corrections department; on the other were fields of men dressed in white, carrying massive hoes called “aggies.”

They were in a line, “flat-weedin’,” as I would find out. Armed guards sat on horses around them, with big straw cowboy hats, spurs, and aviator glasses, meant to shield their eyes from the Texas sun but also to keep the men from seeing who they were looking at. Even from the noisy bus I could hear the “field bosses” yelling and cussing at their unpaid workers and threatening to shoot them. This, I would find out, was normal.

At the end of the road (which is kind of symbolic, for most prisoners in Texas are literally at the end of a road) sat the prison I would be at: a huge, white-bricked building with gun towers, razor-ribboned fences ... the works.

I would be brought in, unhandcuffed and given over to my new keepers; assigned a dorm; read the riot act by the unit major; and ultimately assigned to a 5-Hoe, a fresh-meat squad of workers. It was very hot.

There was no cell space for me yet, so I would sleep on crowded floors for four months at least before my turn for a bed would come.

I tried to ask the “BT” (this stands for “building tender,” an inmate who assists the prison staff with headcounts and tracking other inmates’ whereabouts) about “Hoe-Squad,” but he just told me to be sure to go to breakfast, for the mattresses would be picked up off the floor shortly after that. I spent the rest of that day meeting my dorm-mates, and trying to rest up.

That night, after lights-out, a man sat down at a table about eight feet from where I had laid a mattress to sleep, cut both of his wrists, rested his head on his arms and bled to death. The guards then berated the dead man for creating all the extra paperwork they now had to now do.

Sleep was even further out of the question, because we all were questioned as to what we knew.

Finally morning came, and the prison’s huge doors started getting slammed open as line-squad turnout started. The BT’s listened for the bosses to yell for a particular squad, then relayed the information to us.

This is a very intense time. I watched as the dorms opened with a huge slam and a bang when each door hit its stops. Suddenly, men were running, not walking, down the stairs and through a gauntlet of bosses lined up on each side of a breezeway from the building’s exit.

As we passed, they would try to kick each of us in the butt with spurred cowboy boots, or get a good hit in on us with a 3-foot, quarter-inch-thick strap of leather with a wooden handle. Needless to say, we kept running.

Next, we found our squads by lining up on painted numbers. They did a roll-call, and we walked over to an aggie wagon and got a Texas-sized hoe with a homemade handle. It was like someone had cut down a small sapling and then stuck in the tool’s head … bark and all.

These went on our shoulders. We paired up and walked out toward the huge fields, as the early morning sun glinted off the razor-ribboned fences. A High-Rider (an armed guard on horseback) watched us as our bosses got their pistols and loaded them; I’d soon learn they loved pointing these at us.

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This prison was at one time a sugarcane plantation. Forty-five hundred acres of prime real estate that had been worked by hand more than a century. The land was flat. The air hot and humid. The sweat just poured from me.

I was almost shot on my very first day out there. It was so hot. I had laid up for nine months in county jails and now was trying to work in a chest-high cornfield. My hands were already tore up and blistered bad, and I was about to pass out from the heat. This drew the ire of my boss. He called for a trusted inmate to straighten me out, and as the man ran up from the water-wagon with a piece of pipe to start beating me, I raised my aggie and would have defended myself with it had several pistols not been drawn on me all at once.

The field-captain shot at my feet. It would be prudent to drop my aggie, I realized. I dropped my aggie.

The days would run together after that, the heat, the drudgery, the daily unpaid toiling in dirt and fields under the hot Texas sun.

I have worked all my life with my hands, yet have been cursed with tender-skinned palms and feet, which blister and peel no matter what I do.

I suffered daily with cracked and bleeding hands, and it wasn’t long before they were missing a few layers of skin. What remained bled further, bled so bad my field boss started carrying bandaids in his pocket, which was unheard of back then.

Eventually I coated the handles of all the aggies with blood, making them slick and hard to hold. My clothes were soiled with blood daily, as if I had been fist-fighting in the fields for hours. There was nothing I could do; I was in prison, slaving for the state.

I hurt so bad that I couldn’t even hold an ink-pen to write a letter. So I’d stick the pen between my fingers, which were blistered also.

To make matters worse, we toiled in maize fields with Johnson grass 6 feet tall with half-inch wide blades, which would slide between my slick bloody hands and the aggie handles, slicing me further like razor blades. The blood ran down my arms, but I’d channel my pain and anger into the aggie, and chop that tough grass down.

My hands stained each aggie or ax handle a beautiful mahogany color. The entire time I was on these hoe-squads my hands never healed.

Finally, I got a different job, indoors.

The Central Unit is closed now, its land apportioned off in a real estate boom. Which is fine with me, and good riddance.

But I also wonder if the nice families that bought this prime real estate with their well-earned money, who built their half-a-million-dollar homes, knew they were building on fields of blood?

Timothy Bazrowx, 62, is incarcerated at the John M. Wynne Unit in Huntsville, Texas, where he is serving a 40-year sentence for burglary with intent to commit rape and a concurrent 20-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice did not respond to a request for comment on the suicide and allegations of violence by correctional officers described in this essay.