License plates make me uncomfortable. Not for the reasons they annoy most people such as traffic cameras using them to mail you tickets or having to renew them every year. License plates don’t remind me of cars swishing through the cool evening with the top down. License plates remind me of slave labor.
The first day that I arrived at the Wynne Unit they marched me into the Captain’s office. Captain Treon was sitting behind his desk with an open file in front of him. With a gruff rebuke he made me take my hands out of my pockets. It was always the first thing they said to me when I had an audience with an officer, “Lemme see yer hands, convict.” It was their little way of being cordial.
“Oh, we got us a smart one here,” he said looking at my jacket. They had given me intelligence tests at the Diagnostic Unit. I’m surprised I even got my name right on those tests because I was in the throes of methadone withdrawal when I took them and my brains were like a frothy Pina Colada. It was a comparative assessment, I suppose. In that environment a ‘smart one’ meant that you could read and write. Treon scratched his chin. “Think they need some smart ones down in the Sticker Plant. Yew behave yerself down there er I’ll have yew pickin’ cotton in the sun.”
I had no idea what a Sticker Plant was but it sounded like a better place than the cotton fields. It turned out that the Sticker Plant was a large industrial print shop. We did jobs for the State. Chief among them was to print the license plate stickers that we are required to stick on our plates every year to show that they are current. We also printed various tax and inspection stickers and decals and signs. We saved the State of Texas five or six million bucks per year in print costs which means that we Made that much for them. That was just the amount they made on the printing services disregarding the fact that we might as well have been printing money because every time a sheet with fifty stickers on it came through one of those giant Heidelberg presses, the State was making $2500 in registration fees. I printed over 32 million stickers in the two years that I worked in that shop. That’s over 1.5 Billion dollars worth of stickers and I got paid nadadotsquat. Oh yeah, I was one of the smart ones.
The Sticker Plant job was one of the few on the Wynne Unit where the workplace was air-conditioned. This was not for the benefit of the inmates as much as it was for the benefit of the adhesive-backed paper stock that we used to print the stickers. It started sticking to itself above 78 degrees. The Sticker Plant job was sought after in the strange slave society of prison. Besides the air-conditioning and the good hours, you could learn a useful skill and had access to valuable contraband items like ink for tattoos and card stock for the greeting cards the inmates liked to make. The convicts who worked there were mostly skilled and educated and the bosses weren’t too overbearing. Except for Turner.
Captain Turner was the top boss of the Sticker Plant. He was a crusty old military tripple-dipper. He was retired from the Army and had already retired once from TDC and was now getting two pensions and a salary too. He knew less about printing than a Mormon knows from call girls. It’s a mystery to me what the man did but sit in his office and talk on the phone and about once a week take a stroll through the plant and make semi-insulting wise-cracks to the slaves. He never liked me. I think it had something to do with a little conversation we had when I first started working there. I explained to him that I wasn’t some burnt-out dope addict or a criminal and wasn’t in the same class as most of the others he encountered in my situation. I told him that I was an educated artist and had written books etc and that I would appreciate it if he did not address me as ‘old thaing.’ I didn’t know any better, I was still a drive-up but I think he might have gotten the impression that I was an elitist if that word was in his vocabulary.
I never got used to the uniformity and regimentation of prison. Any sign of individuality was proscribed. They wouldn’t let me grow my hair or my beard or wear the clothes of my choice. The fingernail on my pinky finger was my talisman in their campaign against my identity. I grew it out in bold defiance. There were no specific official rules or policies about fingernail length. I grew it until it was about an inch long and starting to curve. The Mandarins in China grew their nails to absurd lengths to demonstrate that they were so boojie that they didn’t need to work with their hands. In the joint my pinky nails were my little statement of body sovereignty, they declared that my identity was my own. At least that’s what they said to me.
Turner heard something entirely different. One day he had all the inmates in the plant lined up at count time and he stopped in front of me and looking at my pinky, he said, “What’szat, JanYourAiry? Izzat yer cocaine snortin’ faingernail?”
“No, Boss,” I said, “that’s my booger pickin’ fingernail. I can get one on the left side startin’ out on the right.”
The whole room laughed which was my bad luck because Turner liked to be the one to deliver the punch lines in His Sticker Plant. Several days later as he took one of his surly inspection strolls Turner found me reading a book. I will do almost any type of work for which I am physically suited; which particular task is not important to me, I’m ready to do my share. I’m a good worker and I get a lot done. The one thing I refuse to do is to try to look like I’m doing something. Looking busy is the world’s most raging waste of time and dignity. I won’t do it. When my work was done for the day and the press was stripped down and cleaned, it was my custom to read a book. Turner was from the old school of Texas prison guards. He felt that it was his responsibility to demean and ridicule and scourge the guilty souls in his charge. He saw it as his job to punish us and make our stay in his dungeon as uncomfortable as possible. So when he saw me relaxing with a book rather than re-polishing the printing press, he reached his limit with me and my refusal to be institutionalized and fired me. That evening I was handed a little slip telling me to appear in the kitchen for work at 3 AM. I read a book instead.
Among my many difficulties with the Texas penal system is that they think when a man is in their custody, they are entitled to the fruit of his labor. An inmate in a Texas prison is a slave by any definition. He is required to work and receives no compensation for this work. Lawsuits have bounced around for years seeking to address this problem. In Federal Prisons inmates are paid for their work. It’s actually the law of the land that involuntary servitude is a no no. But Texas deals with this minor Constitutional problem with true good-old-boy alacrity. They claim that Texas inmates ARE paid, in some phantom currency called ‘good-time.’ There are many problems with this legal reasoning but so far nobody has had the moxie to wade into the quagmire of administrative law required to fix it. The Old South has risen again in some perverted way. Texas has vast plantations where young men, mostly negroes, are forced to perform work for the Massa State who owns them body and soul.
So when I see a license plate I don’t get a whiff of new car smell in my imagination, I smell the sweat of slaves. No matter what righteous institutional package you wrap it in, prison is still slavery.
I heard the judge say five years
On chain-gang you gonna go
I heard the judge say five years labor
I heard my old man scream “lordy, no!”
Hold it right there while I hit it
Well reckon that ought to get it
Been working and working
But I still got so terribly far to go
—By Oscar brown jr, nat adderley