My muscles were in agony, and getting too weak for the work. My shoulders were on fire. My back ached. “Keep pushing!” the city contractor yelled, from high up above. I was down in a wastewater-treatment pit in a central Georgia city, and kept furiously shoving the black liquid toward the pump, with a squeegee. We had been down there for hours, starting early in the morning and working through our lunch break, which would have been two hours ago if we had gotten it. My forearms screamed in pain, but I kept going.
It was definitely shaping up to be another trying day on the prison work detail.
The liquid was comprised of broken-down, solid waste. It was liquidized human feces and garbage. I had no idea what chemicals they had shocked and treated it with, if any, and I was met with only vague answers when I asked. It was black, heavy, hazardous sludge. It was also filled with worms, and who knows what other parasites we could not see.
The pit was 15 yards across, and we were about the same distance below the ground. The towering concrete walls on all sides were only about an inch from my shoulders at times. It was not for those who are faint of heart or claustrophobic.
And although the sunlight didn’t reach us down there, the heat sure did. In the pit, it was even hotter than the temperature that day at the surface level, which already was close to 100 degrees. We were in rubber boots and a full bodysuit that absolutely did not breathe.
Then I felt it. I became lightheaded and dizzy, and my vision began to blur. I was so thirsty. Cries of “Keep pushing!” from above began to seem distant. I leaned my squeegee against the wall. I was not going to pass out in this toxic liquid sewage. I groped my way back to the ladder and looked up. I had to make it. I began to climb.
I had been, through no choice of my own, on a work detail at a Georgia prison for more than a year now. The prison had four contracts with three different local towns when I first started, providing me with a variety of tough tasks. Cutting grass in city parks and on roadsides in extreme temperatures, clearing out sewage-line overflows, digging trenches to replace broken water lines, and manually cutting pathways through dense woods.
But today the state of Georgia was determined to get the most out of my forced, free labor.
Today I was on the detail at the wastewater treatment plant. For the grand price of $40,000, a guard told me, paid by the city to the prison, we inmates were at the mercy of the city contractors. Any task they required of us, we were to complete without complaint. Refusing to work on detail resulted in a Disciplinary Report on your institutional record, which would negatively impact your prospects for parole. Refusal to work also bought you a night or two or seven in the hole. After which, of course, you’d be put right back on detail to continue making money for the state.
Georgia is one of five states that demands unpaid labor from its inmates. The state makes an awful lot of money off of convict labor. Georgia Correctional Industries, or GCI, is a multi-million-dollar industry making household products, raising livestock, harvesting produce, and contracting with city services.
When I reached the top of the ladder, I climbed out gingerly and hobbled over to the cooler to rehydrate. I had been pushing this heavy, putrid liquid since the morning, and I could feel my body starting to shut down. As I took off the top part of my bodysuit and the shirt I had on underneath, a cascade of liquid gushed forth from just one arm—it was sweat.
Then another man on detail who was loudly proclaiming that he was about to pass out took off his rubber boot and turned it over. In all my life, never have I seen a waterfall of sweat pour out of a man’s boot like that.
I tried to grab hold of my bearings as I sat on the ground and propped my body up against a lawnmower. About 10 minutes wizzed by, then I heard it. “Inmate!” A city contractor was leaning over the pit and pointing over at us. She called and pointed again, “Inmate!” And then jabbed her finger back at the hole.
My name, that’s what it was... Inmate. To her, I was two hands, two legs, and an underfed torso to be used at will. She called again and repeated her aggressive motion, using her whole arm to punch her finger through the air and down toward the pit.
I peeled myself off the ground and put my shirt and sludge-covered bodysuit back on. I began to descend the ladder. The sunlight was fading. As I went down, it gave way to shadow and darkness.
Adrian Drepaul, 30, is incarcerated at Carroll County Correctional Institution, in Carroll County, Georgia, where he is serving a seven-year sentence for one count of serious injury by vehicle. This essay describes a job he worked at another correctional facility.