Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Illustration by

I am of the mindset that prison labor is modern-day slavery and the 13th Amendment should be revised. However, I have to work or there are consequences I can’t handle, such as being denied visits or phone calls with my children. In the past 12 years, I have done three types of labor: forced labor, university labor and voluntary love labor.

It is difficult to navigate these prison waters, but to “get on and do my time,” I took a page out of my ancestors’ book and attempted to work as best as I can to earn some perks. These perks may include clean clothing, weekends off or morning or night shifts.

I came into the system shocked by the manipulation and abuse imposed against a population that is already extremely vulnerable, emotionally and mentally. There is a system that determines who can get a “good job,” such as maintenance. It is designed to make some feel better than others. It’s a carrot and stick game to keep some of us in check.

People who come to prison after committing crimes and having hurt loved ones feel like the lowest of the low. Most will grab hold of anything that makes them feel worthy, even if that means accepting a “good job” that isn’t actually that great.

As an act of defiance against this manipulation, I have always refused these better jobs, opting to stay in the field every time I was invited into the house. My resume has certainly taken a hit from this little act of rebellion.

I’ve done menial jobs, such as working on the hoe squad, on the trash crew and as a dishwasher and line server to name a few.

But my best work has been as a coordinator for the Muslim community for 11 years. In this capacity, I have pulled from the religion of Islam to demonstrate women’s high station on earth. I teach my female peers and staff about history, politics, religion and finance in the hopes that this knowledge can help build their confidence, self-esteem and sense of worthiness and self-determination. It gave me purpose and a platform to teach.

Since March 2021, I have been on the Halbert Unit working inside the yard for one of the best bosses I’ve ever had. I mostly work in the garden, and it has awakened my femininity. My boss takes the time to show me the intricate designs of flowers and plants, what hurts and heals them and how to care for the soil.

As a Chicagoan, I had never seen a real garden until prison, but now I love them. My soul finds so much peace in a garden. I’m aware of Allah there and his beautiful creation. I’m aware of Mother Earth and the fact that she should be cared for just as we care for our homes. In return, she cares for everyone and gives us all a home.

I dream of a time when I can plant my own garden. But all this passes through me peacefully, for being in the garden isn’t heavy but uplifting. It can be the hottest day but there is coolness in the garden. This job for me has been an ode to my womanhood, and I will always appreciate this labor of love.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Sakina Shakur was the editor of Money Games, a prison newsletter about personal finance. She holds an associates degree in general studies and is a student in a joint program at the University of Houston-Downtown and Houston Community College. She is passionate about history, politics, religion and criminal justice reform. She was incarcerated in Texas.