The last time Bert Davis was booked into Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California, he was assigned to Housing Unit 31, the pod for inmate workers, and promptly sent to work in the facility’s industrial kitchen.
This was routine for Davis, who had cycled in and out of Alameda County’s main jail over the years, either awaiting trial or serving sentences for minor charges like drug possession and joyriding. He had a reputation as a hard worker who was willing to volunteer for extra shifts or stay overtime.
He never had an opportunity to say no to the kitchen assignments, Davis says, but in any case, he didn’t want to. Working gave him a little freedom of movement and a chance to spend days outside the cramped cell where he bunked with about 30 other men. He got to walk in the sun on his way to work, and swipe whatever extra food he could grab—maybe an orange or a packet of Kool-Aid with ice. “Ice is a big thing in there,” Davis, now 49, tells me. “A piece of ice and you’re living like a king.” These minor perks made it “better to be slave than it is not a slave,” he says.
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