Pennies Per Hour

Most California state prisoners hold jobs maintaining prison facilities, from mopping cellblock floors to serving food in the chow hall. They can earn up to 11 cents an hour, but some critics say there’s a higher cost: The jobs leave prisoners unprepared for life on the outside — especially formerly incarcerated women.

By Cecilia Lei

Rojas says the scullery — a tiny, cramped room inside the prison kitchen — is one of the last places any prisoner wants to be.

Inside, a sole prisoner is responsible for only one function: washing the dining trays. For two meals a day, a couple thousand prisoners shuffle into the chow hall to line up, collect their food, eat and line up once more to dispose their trays in 15-minute intervals.

The trays are stacked, sometimes often sloppily tossed into the scullery, sending chunks of leftover food flying onto the floors and splattering the person who’s working inside.

During Rojas’ last year inside a California women’s prison, each day was spent just like this: spraying water and bleach onto trays in a small industrial steel room.

For the work, Rojas was unpaid.

A kitchen skullery at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, Calif. (Photo courtesy of CDCR)

Working inside the prison kitchen was one of several facility maintenance jobs that Rojas held while incarcerated. Thousands of California prisoners, like Rojas, are obligated to perform such operational tasks for the prison system, from mopping cellblock floors and mowing lawns, to laundering linens and prisoner uniforms.

It’s the most common type of work for the state’s prisoners, and officials say it’s necessary for the operations of the prisons. When the work is paid, prisoners start off by earning just eight cents per hour.

In recent years, California’s prison system has poured millions into rehabilitative programs aimed at preparing prisoners for release and to return to their communities with job skills. Yet, for many, like Rojas, prison jobs provide them with few transferable skills, particularly for jobs in the state where the cost of living high.

This gap is particularly glaring for women and non-binary gendered people in the prison system.

"I don't ever say 'I'm an ex-gang member', ever. I'm always like 'I am who I am.' That's a part of me." Rojas left prison in January 2017. (Photo by Yutao Chen)

The experiences of formerly incarcerated people like Rojas, who identifies as gender non-conforming and uses they/them pronouns, reveal that such prison work assignments make it even more difficult to find work that prepares them for life outside prison walls, and that work assignments are largely informed by the gender and sexual politics inside the prison environment.

“They make you work instead of helping you. They’re supposed to be doing rehabilitation,” Rojas said. “If I’m asking for help and [they’re] telling me ‘no, you’re going to wash dishes instead,’ it’s punishment. It’s the way they punish us.”

For Rojas, the punishment persists. It’s vivid and still haunts them to this day.

Rojas can still smell the stench of tobacco juice.

The prison guard had spat streams on Roja while scraping the heel of his boot across their back as they laid face down, pinned against the cold concrete floor.

“I still wake up and it trips me out. I look around and I have to tell myself it was a really bad dream,” Rojas recalled. “It was a nightmare.”

Dressed in a black tank top, basketball shorts and a bright blue Dodgers cap, Rojas, now released and living in Compton, Calif., recalled the 2015 assault that they endured inside Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), the state’s largest women’s prison where Rojas served 15 years for attempted murder.

Rojas says being made to do work that keeps prisons running for little to no pay was direct retaliation for whistleblowing the abusive treatment of female prisoners.

Women are the fastest growing demographic across U.S. prison systems and face a unique set of challenges. Among them, men’s prisons often provide a greater variety of vocational and rehabilitative training compared to women’s prisons, especially for higher skilled and higher pay jobs on the outside.

The unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is nearly five times higher than that of the general United States population. But formerly incarcerated people of color and women face the worst labor market disadvantages. Formerly incarcerated black women, for example, experience severe levels of unemployment — their unemployment rate is 43.6 percent, compared to 18.4 percent for formerly incarcerated white men.

Additionally, compared to men, women prisoners are also given fewer work assignments and lower pay.

Paying prisoners literal pennies per hour for essential operations saves the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or the CDCR, millions of dollars each year. Even then, the system remains among the most expensive in the world. The annual cost of incarcerating someone in a California prison tops $80,000 a year.

But Rojas, and other prisoner advocates say that facility maintenance jobs are an extension of the power that the CDCR wields over prisoners. Prison labor can be leveraged as either a privilege or a punishment. Though all prisoners across the system are obligated to fulfill such assignments, women and non-binary prisoners say they feel the subjugation of such work even more severely.

Rojas, who identifies as gender non-conforming, says the prison system gives preferential treatment and rehabilitation opportunities to women who appear more feminine. (Photo by Yutao Chen)

Rojas understands this intimately. In 2002, they had entered prison as “Stacy Rojas,” but it is customary for prisoners to be called by only their last names. As Rojas navigated their gender identity in prison, the name stuck. Since being released in 2017, the name “Rojas” became not only a re-introduction to society, but also a badge of resistance they continue to wear while confronting the prison system.

“That’s my way of letting people know that I haven’t forgotten,” said Rojas, who frequently pauses to take off their baseball cap and rub their shaved hair. These brief intermissions feel like moments that steady Rojas’ anger.

“I want them to remember that I’m Rojas, like the way they made me remember for 15 years...because now I’m out here talking about what we went through in there.”

Prison labor as a “necessary” condition of the prison system.

How prisoners like Rojas spend their time in prison has become more as major reforms and shifts in policies have dramatically decreased the state’s prison population.

According to criminal justice experts, California’s punitive policies of the 1980’s and 90’s — such as Three Strikes and the War on Drugs — caused a surge in the prison population and were especially devastating to women. In state prisons, women are more likely than men to be incarcerated for low-level crimes , such as drug or property offenses. By 2006, the state’s prison population peaked at nearly 163,000, but after federal courts ruled California’s prison overcrowding as unconstitutional, there was a large uptick of prisoners moving either under the authority of county jails or receiving early releases.

In combination with other landmark policy changes, the population dropped down to 111,000 by 2015. Currently, the CDCR houses about 117,000 prisoners across its 35 prison facilities and 42 conservation camps, and about 5,000 of them are women.

California's decreasing prison population and major key reforms

Such large population shifts have refocused the state on prisoner rehabilitation. In the past five years, prison budgets have increased by almost 30 percent to grow programming services, including cognitive behavioral treatment, substance abuse, and academic and vocational training.

But formerly incarcerated people, like Rojas, say prison maintenance jobs are almost always prioritized over proper rehabilitation and reentry training.

Prison programming is hierarchical, and work and rehabilitative opportunities are largely determined by a decades-old classification process that evaluates the prisoners’ risks and needs. Some prisoners receive higher-paying, meaningful assignments while a large majority are stuck performing operational duties.

Prison labor was at the heart of key criminal justice news stories in 2018. During the summer, a nationwide prison strike took place across 17 states where American prisoners organized hunger strikes and work stoppages with the help of such organizations as the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), a national prison abolition advocacy group. The campaign’s 10 demands included increased funding for rehabilitation programs and “an immediate end to prison slavery” — it was a rallying cry for the humanization of prisoners.

Prisoner firefighters in Yosemite
Prisoner firefighters face Yosemite's Rim Fire. (Photo courtesy of CDCR)

In the fall of 2018, California faced its most deadly wildfire yet and news stories raised awareness of the state’s use of prisoner firefighters who, despite being responsible for such dangerous and necessary work, only earned two dollars a day (and an additional dollar an hour while fighting an active fire).

However, Brooke Terpstra, an organizer and member of IWOC’s Oakland chapter, says the conversation around the state’s prison labor practices — in particular, the focus on the prisoner firefighters — is limiting. Prisoner firefighting jobs offer some of the highest wages; the positions are coveted and aren’t easy to get. Currently, only 3,700 prisoners are enrolled in California’s fire camps.

You can call forced labor by any other name but making you essentially maintain the same institution that’s kicking the crap out of utterly perverse — Brooke Terpstra, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.

Laborers in Folsom state prison. (Photo courtesy of CDCR)

Terpstra emphasizes that there’s only one other industry to which prison labor is absolutely essential in California: “imprisonment itself.” He says this should raise serious concerns about the dignity of prisoners, since they’re expected to keep up the same facilities that are keeping them “captive.”

“You can call forced labor by any other name but making you essentially maintain the same institution that’s kicking the crap out of utterly perverse,” he said.

Bill Sessa, a spokesperson for the CDCR, says it’s imperative that every prisoner “must do something” — a work assignment, education or any other type of programming. But he acknowledges that prisoners help CDCR’s goal of making “prisons as self-sufficient as we can.”

Women prison workers mopping the floors.
Women prison workers mopping the floors. (Photo courtesy of CDCR)

The mandate that CDCR prisoners must first fulfill duties that serve the prisons' operations is not a hidden motive: it’s actually written into the CDCR’s current code of regulations, which notes that "able-bodied" prisoners must work and that prison operations take precedence over any other programming assignment:

But Sessa insists “there is rehabilitation in discipline,” and that people who focus on the jobs’ low wages or the lack of sophisticated skill training ignore the redemptive qualities of work itself.

He says a prisoner’s motivation for working is inherently different: job responsibilities give prisoners an opportunity to contribute to larger goals and assist with “the process of forgiving themselves” for the crimes they’ve committed.

San Quentin dining hall, undated. (Photo courtesy of CDCR)

The concept of prison labor in California is nearly as old as the state itself. After being founded as a free state in 1850, California’s first prison was established in Marin County the following year — today it’s known as San Quentin State Prison.

Historians say the state’s corrections industry has always been directly linked to opportunities for profit and cost-savings.

Built in response to rising crime during the Gold Rush, San Quentin’s private owners agreed to run it in exchange for employing convict labor for their own profit. The earliest California prisoners were deployed throughout the Bay Area to work for any willing employers, and a brick-making factory was built at the prison’s site.

When prison ownership moved under the state several years later, contracting prison labor continued though under more controlled conditions. California prisoners manufactured goods for a range of contractors including saddle and harness makers, and shoe manufacturers.

Built in response to the influx of crime during the Gold Rush, the prison’s private owners agreed to run the state’s prison in exchange for employing convict labor for their own profit. The earliest California prisoners were deployed throughout the Bay Area to work for any willing employers, and a brick-making factory was built at the prison’s site. When state authorities took possession of the prison in 1855, citing the owners’ failure to properly secure the prison in favor of profit motives, there were also even charges that the state's black prisoners were sold to the New Orleans slave market.

In addition to contracted labor, prisoners were employed by the state to do work that mirrors today’s in-prison facility maintenance jobs: They were hired as cooks, waiters, clerks, washmen and gardeners. Vestiges of these early-day prisoner work models have trickled into today's operation structure of California’s prison system, which relies on prisoners to work.

According to Sharon Dolovich, a UCLA law professor and director of the university’s Prison Law & Policy Program, prisoners aren’t afforded the same protections as workers on the outside. California prisoners are not generally protected by state or federal labor laws. They are also paid far less than minimum wage, treatment that may be justified by the 13th Amendment, which says “involuntary servitude” can be used as a “punishment for crime” for individuals who “have been duly convicted.”

Additionally, prisoners aren’t entitled to such rights as minimum wage protections, the ability to collectively bargain and Social Security. And although prisoners are under Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protections, they don’t have access to their full benefits. OSHA is required to notify prisons before inspections, which adds an extra layer of opacity between prisoners and regulators.

For women and non binary prisoners, safety is an even harder challenge.

A Bureau of Justice Statistics study revealed that 66 percent of women in prison reported a history of mental disorder — almost double the percentage of incarcerated men. About half of women who enter prison or jails have been physically or sexually abused, and women are also disciplined more severely than men for similar behavior, which works against their ability to gain privileges such as advanced rehabilitative programming or time off their sentences.

Advocates say that though prisoners understand many facility maintenance positions are exploitative, most would opt to have a job instead of not working.

Terpstra says the fact that prisoners readily seek out and accept unstimulating, low-paying work is indicative of how “sophisticated” the state’s prison system environment is: “Work is actually withheld and used as a privilege and sought after to get simple relief from the torture, psychological distress and isolation of being locked in your cell.”

“If you gave them a choice of working in the kitchen for 8 cents an hour or sitting in their cells doing nothing, they would choose the work,” Dolovich adds. “They would get their 8 cents, which over time would give them enough money to buy toothpaste or basic supplies at the commissary.”

The Female Prison Laborer

Despite earning the lowest wages, Brown said the pay would often make her ineligible for “an indigent pack” — the free hygiene kit supplied by the CDCR. Instead, she'd save for months for to buy the items. (Photo by Yutao Chen)

Janell Brown, 29, was paroled in August and spent almost a decade in several California prisons after being convicted for gun-related charges and grand theft auto. While in CCWF, she worked as a yard crew member, a porter and in the kitchen where she was assigned to wipe the dining tables between each 15-minute meal shift. She had to work quickly.

Brown says prison guards were constantly verbally abusive, especially if they deemed her or others too slow. “They would tell me: ‘Hurry the fuck up’, ‘What the fuck is your problem?’, ‘Are you fucking stupid?’,” Brown said. The cruel treatment still bothers her today. “If you want us to do a job, then you should treat us professionally.’”

According to a research study from the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), a key pattern of custodial misconduct in women’s correctional facilities, in addition to rape and sexual assault, is verbal degradation. Because so many women enter the criminal justice system with past abuses, exposure to this kind of environment can further impact existing PTSD, depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses and disabilities.

Despite the belittling treatment, the jobs were an economic necessity for Brown. Brown grew up in group homes and foster care, like nearly 17 percent of women offenders nationally. Without family or friends who could add money into her account, she depended on her 8 cent hourly wage for basic supplies. Brown said she’d save for months in order to buy simple items such as soap or shampoo.

Brown said throughout each one of her prison terms, she asked to be placed in higher paying jobs such as fire camps, but was never given the opportunity.

The programming assignment that a CDCR prisoner receives is determined during their classification process, which takes place when they enter the facility. It decides two outcomes: the facility they’ll be placed in — for example, an open dormitory versus one with armed guards at the perimeter — and the amount of supervision they require. Minimum custody levels qualify for assignments that may take place outside the facility, while the highest custody levels require direct and constant supervision in the facility.

Terpstra is critical of CDCR’s inmate classification process, which was pioneered during the state’s prison boom in the 1980’s. He says the prison system is creates “different classes of prisoners.”

According to NIC's study, the classification system was also designed largely for a male population. Like the rest of the prison system’s policies and procedures, most of the assessment instruments were validated for male prisoners, which may make them inaccurate in calculating the risks and needs of women offenders. In fact, there’s a tendency to over-classify women, placing them at higher levels of custody or supervision than necessary.

Ryken Grattet — a UC Davis sociology professor who also once served as the CDCR’s assistant secretary for research and was part of the agency’s 2011 classification system expert panel — adds that classification works “to the extent that there's stability in the population.” He explained that despite the major policy and population changes of the past decade, the process has largely not been reevaluated.

Taylor Lytle was convicted of a drug conviction and served two years of a four-year sentence before being released early due to Proposition 47. (Photo by Yutao Chen)

Taylor Lytle was 23-years-old when she entered prison in 2013. Because she was a low-risk offender with a drug conviction, the Los Angeles native knew her low-level classification would qualify her for fire camps, but she wanted to avoid the program entirely. “I’m a heavyset person,” Lytle explained. At 5’10” and 310 pounds, the dangerous and highly physical demands of fire camp were something she didn’t think her body could endure safely; Lytle was intimidated by the training. “I just knew I couldn’t do it.”

Romarilyn Ralston, program director for Project Rebound at California State University Fullerton and a member of the California Coalition of Women Prisoners (CCWP), adds that though fire camps are considered privileged assignments, they’re often given to women who aren’t physically and mentally fit for the program because of the increased need during fire season. The NIC study notes that women frequently enter jails and prisons in poor health, and experience more serious health problems than their male counterparts.

After growing up in foster care since the age of 11, Lytle understood how to deftly navigate the state system: she got back on her psychotropic medication, knowing it would disqualify her from fire camp training, and was then transferred to the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona, where she was put to work in the prison’s kitchen.

While she avoided the physical demands of firefighting training, Lytle compared kitchen work to slavery, calling it “the worst job” in prison, not only because of its responsibilities but also the way she was treated in the prison kitchen.

“Because of my sexuality, I always felt like it was a big issue with male staff and their bravado,” said Lytle, who describes herself as “butch.” Because of the bullying she endured at the hands of one correctional officer in particular while in the kitchen, Lytle would often refuse to go to work, which resulted in frequent 115’s, or write-ups: “I always dealt with being a target because of my size...everybody wants to break down the biggest person.”

Lytle was almost transferred to a higher security level facility, but a reduction in sentences for drug convictions under Proposition 47 meant she received an early release midway through her four-year sentence. She worked in the kitchen until the very end of her term.

Ralston says incidents like Lytle’s are an example of how privileges within women’s prisons are dictated by how you look — not only in the treatment received by prison guards and staff, but also in opportunities for higher-wage jobs. She says classification committees “size women up” for different roles, based on physical attributes and appearance. For more privileged jobs, like clerical work, that involve less hard labor, the CDCR seeks a certain type of woman: “They usually hire women who are girly, pretty, soft-spoken, obedient, compliant,” said Ralston.

“I felt like the men were perverts…They would always say shit about how I’m so pretty and flirt with me…The power and authority they had: I felt so stuck, like I had to take it,” said Jayde Amato, 31. (Photo by Yutao Chen)

Jayde Amato, a 31-year-old, long-haired brunette from Huntington Beach, checked off many of these physical requirements. She entered the state’s prison system in 2011 at the age of 23 after getting into a fight with another woman, and was sentenced for assault with a weapon and great bodily injury. Amato served a majority of her sentence at CCWF. Throughout her seven years in prison, she moved through higher level opportunities, including auto body training, electrical work, cosmetology and the dental lab, one of the programming opportunities offered by the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA).

CALPIA is considered one of the top tiers of work programming for prisoners. It operates as a semi-autonomous agency within the prison system that sells 1,500 prisoner-produced goods and services to the state agencies and entities, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Commonly referred to as “correctional industries,” these state-owned businesses give prisoners diverse training opportunities, ranging from more advanced skills like computer coding and commercial diving, to manufacturing prisoner uniforms, furniture and denture-making, egg production and state administrative services.

From the start, Amato was determined to avoid being placed in the kitchen. “It’s like the lowest of the low. I heard of other jobs and I didn’t want to start at the bottom,” said Amato. She approached department heads and program supervisors to try to land in a better position. But she says it was more than her hustling that helped.

“All those jobs? I got them because I knew if I was face-to-face with them, I could just sit there, bat my little eyelashes, make sure I look really cute,” said Amato. She eventually landed in a clerical position, which paid the highest wage she ever earned: 45 cents per hour.

But her feminine appearances also came with its own set of challenges: constant harassment from one of the officers she clerked for — a man Amato says took advantage of the power he had over her, and would often comment on her looks and tell her how pretty she was. “He’d stand so close to me and it was so uncomfortable, being asked personal questions that had nothing to do with the job,” said Amato. “I felt like I was held captive, even within the prison, by the people who are supposed to be watching over me or making sure I’m okay.”

From 2011 to 2015, the number of reported allegations of sexual victimization in correctional facilities nearly tripled. Specifically, sexual misconduct and harassment of prisoners by staff accounted for more than 60 percent of this total increase.

Amato says being placed into higher-paying and higher-level positions, like those with CALPIA allowed her to demonstrate good behavior, which resulted in a reduction of her prison sentence by over a year and a half. It also allowed her to segue into a transitional housing facility, which provided vocational and counseling services that Amato says were critical for preparing her for her reentry.

Chuck Pattillo is the longest serving general manager of CALPIA who retired in January after heading the entire organization for 14 years. He believes its programs are a model for successful rehabilitation by directly linking to jobs that are in demand in California. Pattillo says that setting up a prisoner to find work quickly is key to lower recidivism.

“You want to move them to self-sufficiency faster and a job is the fastest way to make somebody self confident, self sufficient. Unless the person can support themselves, they don't feel their worth,” Pattillo said.

Angelica Sanchez says that because the chow hall is usually the main social event of the prison day, fights would often break out. (Photo by Yutao Chen)

Angelica Sanchez, 39, was released from prison in 2006 after serving two years, but struggled with her sobriety. She says much of it stemmed from her inability to find stable work without any formal work training.

Sanchez says prison kitchens are like a “little cartoon beehive,” and are dangerous for workers. It’s easy to slip while carrying large pots or get burned on a stove or fryer. During her two years at CIW, she said prisoners were never given any kind of safety training other than being handed a hair net, and that incoming workers relied on other prisoners to show them the ropes.

She recalls her time in the kitchen as “degrading,” and claims she was never paid for her work: “Prisons belittle you, they make you feel like shit.” Sanchez, a mother of six, gave birth to one of her daughters in 2005 while she was still in prison. According to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 60 percent of female prisoners are mothers of minor children.

Ralston says this inherently changes the way a woman copes with imprisonment — self-preservation becomes a priority so that the women can get home to their families. “You can’t have feelings in there, you can’t dwell on shit because either you’re gonna want to kill yourself, or you just gotta survive,” said Sanchez.

Sanchez has only just found steady employment recently as a baker with Homeboy Bakery, a social enterprise organization in downtown Los Angeles that trains and hires formerly incarcerated people. It’s Sanchez’s first real job; she had only sold dope her entire life.

Retaliation instead of rehabilitation

For Rojas, the kitchen eventually became a site of serious humiliation and retaliation after over a decade of being targeted for their gender non-conforming identity.

“The supervising officers just didn’t like me,” Rojas said. “I look different, I’m vocal and opinionated, and I spoke up a lot.”

Throughout their sentence, Rojas claims it was their masculine appearance that prompted unnecessary intimidation, from Bible-thumping messages to sexual comments. They were thrown into “the hole” often for their open defiance, had privileges taken away, including wages for their yard crew and porter assignments. In a response, CDCR said in an email that Rojas had been counseled several times for being repeatedly absent at work, which resulted in loss of good time, or sentence reductions.

As time passed, Rojas realized there was another way to be defy the prison system.

After nearly 14 years in prison and recognizing the lack of resources available to women to safely navigate the prison system, Rojas became an activist inside CCWF. They organized small circles of women to go over law library manuals so that women could understand their rights and file complaints.

“They started to notice that we were all kind of sticking together,” said Rojas, who quickly earned a reputation among the prison staff. “I had friends that couldn’t speak out but were rooting me on in silence.”

Rojas is one of four former prisoners who filed a federal lawsuit in 2017 that cited the traumatic assault they endured in November 2015. According to the lawsuit, a male officer called Rojas a ‘stupid hoe’ while they performed programming duties to which Rojas responded that they'd plan to report the verbal abuse they had been documenting to the prison’s internal investigative unit.

Several days later, staff conducted a search of the cell that Rojas shared with two other cell mates, both of whom also identify as gender non-conforming/queer. During the search, the lawsuit alleges an officer slammed Rojas to the ground and performed a “boot burn,” dragging the heel of his boot against their back, which deeply bruised and lacerated their skin. Rojas adds that the officer, who was chewing tobacco at the time, spat on them repeatedly while they remained on the ground.

Rojas' medical injury report after their November 2015 physical assault. (Document courtesy of Rojas)

The complaint document also details how Rojas’ cellmates were subsequently attacked on that same day, after they threatened to report the officer for excessive force. One roommate was strip searched and had her bare breast stepped on by an officer. Another, a known victim of sexual abuse, was pinned to the floor while her clothes were cut off her body. The guards also openly discussed the size of their genitalia in front of Rojas and one of the roomates, which they perceived to be a threat of rape.

All three were held in separate isolation cages for approximately 12 hours without access to food, water, or a bathroom, after enduring sexual and physical harassment. At one point during the 12-hour hold, Rojas, who could hear one of their roommates being attacked, attempted to hang themself with their shoelaces, hoping to catch the attention and help of other prison staff. When they were eventually taken out of the cages, all three were placed into solitary confinement. Despite filing multiple grievance reports after the incident, the involved guards were never disciplined.

The 2017 civil rights lawsuit filed by Rojas and their cellmates, cited violations of their First Amendment rights (the ability to file grievances without retaliation), as well as their Eighth Amendment rights (the lack of access to medical care after the attack). California’s attorney general filed a response arguing the lawsuit should be dismissed because there was no specific evidence to support the inmates’ claims of sexual abuse, retaliation, indifference to medical needs or use of excessive force. The case is now scheduled for a settlement conference in early May.

The study by NIC says that misconduct toward women prisoners is “aggravated by poor grievance procedures, inadequate investigations, and staff retaliation against inmates or parolees who ‘blow the whistle.’”

Before the incident, Rojas’ “closed custody” level did not allow them to work in the kitchen, but when they were released from solitary after the incident — a year out from their release — Rojas met with a committee and requested anger management and re-entry training.

Instead, they were assigned to the kitchen, despite their custody level.

“They didn’t allow me to take reentry classes...I begged for it” said Rojas who explained that the training is typically provided to prisoners who are nearing the end of their sentences. It’s a move Rojas believes was deliberate retaliation. “They make you work instead of helping you. They’re supposed to be doing rehabilitation. If I’m asking for help and they’re telling me ‘no, you’re going to wash dishes,’ it’s punishment. It’s the way they punish us.”

Two of the officers named in the grievance report filed by Rojas and their cellmates would walk in to taunt Rojas as they scrubbed floors and cleaned trays alone in the scullery. The officers taunted that they’d make sure Rojas stayed in prison for a long time.

Until the very end of their sentence, Rojas continued to come face-to-face with their abusers: “It was a year of hell.”

According to the CDCR, Rojas received a serious disciplinary rule violation in December 2016 for continuing to refuse work or participate in training — a month before they were released on parole.

Rojas had challenged the prison system until the end.

On the outside: advocacy and healing

It was a warm evening in late March when Lytle, Sanchez, Brown and Amato gathered in Rojas’ backyard in Compton.

As dusk started to settle, Rojas placed wooden planks and scraps into a fire pit and unfolded lounge chairs, setting them up into a circle. A takeout box of pepperoni pizza and a liter of Squirt soda sat on the paint-chipped picnic table nearby.

It was time for a “healing circle,” an intimate gathering that Rojas hosts for formerly incarcerated women every week. They all share a direct connection to Rojas — some had served time with Rojas, or knew them through the hood, or their organizing work.

Today, Rojas is a community organizer and founding member of the Los Angeles chapter of the Young Women’s Freedom Center, an advocacy group for formerly incarcerated women. They are also working to help raise awareness of the #MeTooBehindBars movement.

To attend, some women drive from as far as Riverside County, while others brave the evening rush hour traffic from downtown Los Angeles. For them, it’s worth the effort. It’s free weekly therapy, a space to be in the company of others who know what it’s like to survive the prison system as a woman

They say they’re still surviving.

As the fire of the healing circle began to flicker brighter, the women started discussing their financial and employment struggles, from being passed over for job opportunities to facing eviction by landlords. Surviving these days is difficult when the shadow and stigma of being a former felon continues to follow them.

Lytle, who is now a community organizer with CCWP, is struggling to pay rent. Though she’s grateful for the opportunity to work on issues she cares about, Lytle says it’s difficult to save for bigger opportunities like education, when her wages can barely cover her living expenses.

Brown is currently living out of her car and had just lost the only job she could find since her August release — an under-the-table job at a mechanic shop. While in prison, the only programming Brown truly enjoyed was a short-lived stint in the auto body shop, where she quickly fell in love with everything about fixing cars. “I like the smell of car grease and oil. I just like wrenching,” she said. “I like doing something that kind of shows that women can do this too.”

But her most recent boss, the owner of the mechanic shop, had taken advantage of both her passion and former felon status. Brown worked 12-hour shifts at the shop and was only paid $50 in cash each day. Though she knew it was wrong, Brown says she had been desperate after being rejected from the 40-ish jobs she applied to after leaving prison, including applications at Jack-in-the-Box and warehouses. Brown was forced out of the mechanic shop jobs when her boss sent her a sexually suggestive video of himself. The incident reminded her of prison: “They automatically look at you like, ‘Oh, they're pieces of shit,’” said Brown. “That's not what it is like, we're worth something out here, you know, and we just need the opportunity to be able to excel.”

For her, the emotional wounds from prison are still fresh, especially when Brown realizes how the prison had assigned her facility jobs in place of the reentry training that she needed: “You spent all this time in there and they say that it was supposed to rehabilitate you, but when you get out, you're like really having anxiety and you're kind of just like stuck wondering, how are you going to do this now, you know? So in there when you're working and stuff, like it's just a waste of time. It's not doing anything for you at all. All it is, is benefiting them.”

As the night progresses — and the fire pit became a glowing pile of ash — Rojas winds down the discussion and burns a small piece of wooden incense.

When asked what freedom means to them now, since being released over two years ago, Rojas insists that though they are free from retaliation by the officers, the prison still has a hold on them. “The prison hasn’t ever done anything — not one thing — to rehabilitate me,” said Rojas. “I’m out here struggling, I feel so far behind.

Uneven Ground
Women make up just 3% of lucrative male dominated construction jobs – Gender based harassment and discrimination has kept their numbers virtually unchanged half a century after affirmative action.
Pennies per Hour
Most California state prisoners hold jobs that maintain prison facilities for as low as 8 cents an hour. The roles are cost-effective for the state, but critics say they don’t prepare inmates for life on the outside.
More than 600,000 inmates are released from prison every year, 35,000 in California. Most are seeking a regular job that can keep a roof over their head - a challenge that’s not easy to overcome.
Cannabis legalization in California is a mess. Tax revenues are lower than expected, the illegal market is thriving and workers on the Central Coast are weighing the benefits and fears of working in a newly permitted industry.
In California, wage theft is underreported, underenforced, and costs workers billions of dollars every year. But, you’re more likely to be prosecuted for stealing a sandwich.
California’s almost 2 million undocumented workers face a disproportionately high risk of being killed or injured on the job despite state laws designed to protect them.
California has some of the nation’s most progressive recycling policies and goals, but the industry’s workers face hazardous conditions—and global market forces are adding to their strain.
Workers in California’s waste industry labor far beyond our shores. Plastic recyclers in Minh Khai, Vietnam wrestle with the blessings and curses of an empire built on our trash.