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Ants crawl around bread crumbs on a white kitchen countertop
Photo by RJH on iStock

In the warehouse where inmate-employees like me package snacks and sandwich ingredients into lunch boxes, there’s a sign hanging: “Quality Over Quantity.” But in my experience, workers there suffer from unsafe conditions driven by a demanding schedule that doesn’t take into account our mental or physical health.

I started working at the California Prison Industry Authority bread shop at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in 2019. I applied on my fifth day in that prison and got the job the same day, putting bread, packets of peanut butter and jelly, and snacks into lunch boxes that came down the assembly line. Soon, I was promoted to “catcher,” grabbing the lunches at the end of the line and placing them into large boxes to be packaged and shipped out.

But two years later, I left.

Even though we were creating lunch boxes that people expected to be good, the facility was filthy. Ants and field mice roamed around the shop and the food products. There was a lot of food waste and plastic wrappers. During my time there, all five shop janitors quit, asking instead to go on the line. Their cleaning equipment was old, dirty and broken; it took more than two and a half years for some mop heads and buckets to be replaced.

Conditions weren’t safe either. Inmate-employees at the tape machine didn’t have the safety equipment they needed, including back braces or a handle for the stretch wrap roll. I remember workers spinning the plastic without the roll, which could cause a sensation like rope burn. In my time there, workers complained about both back pain and the burning.

The warehouse that stored our supplies and spare parts was an accident waiting to happen. There was so much stuff all over the warehouse floor that you couldn’t move the industrial stepladder required to reach the top of the eight-foot shelves for supplies. Instead, inmate-employees were asked to climb the high shelves on their own. I remember seeing an inmate fall off the shelf onto a pallet of boxes, landing on his head.

An injury is what forced me out. I injured my back hauling a pallet of brand new cardboard boxes off a pickup truck. I filed my own worker’s comp request, which was denied, and I haven’t worked there since. (The State Compensation Insurance Fund asserted that I had a “preexisting back injury,” which stemmed from my slipping on the bread shop’s wet floor over a year prior.)

Old co-workers who still work at the bread shop tell me nothing has changed. It doesn’t have to be like this. The reason I was so excited about working at the bread shop is because I had such a positive experience working at the prison authority’s coffee roasting program in Mule Creek State Prison. I loved it there: it was professionally run, the staff were kind, and they treated us with respect. I felt very safe and secure.

Instead, it felt demeaning at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility, forced to push out as much quantity as possible, letting quality suffer.

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.

Tue Kha is a writer incarcerated in California. He is working on a novel titled "Kormic."