Hunters Point native Lee Foster describes life on ‘The Farm,’ an Arkansas prison

Prisoners at Cummins Unit – also known as The Farm near Pine Bluff, Arkansas – ride to the fields, where they are forced to work without pay and without proper tools and protection in hopes of “qualifying” to go home early. These rides are bumpy and dangerous as the tractors are pulled across dirt roads ridden with potholes.

by Lee Foster

My name is Lee Foster. I’m 35 years old and I’m from San Francisco. I lived in The Point on Revere Avenue. I have a subscription to your newspaper. And I wanted to write you and tell you about some of the things that go on here in Arkansas. 

I’m incarcerated for first degree murder at Arkansas Division of Correction (ADC) Cummins Unit aka “The Farm.” We call it The Farm because it’s a big farm that grows every food that can be grown. 

I have never seen nothing like it. This is the New Jim Crow still going strong here in Arkansas.

The classification system here has Class 1 through 4, 4 being the worst. Depending on what you get a disciplinary for depends on how long you stay Class 4. It can be up to a year in Class 4. It takes 30 days to get your Class 2. Then another 30 days to get your Class 1. 

When you first get to the prison, no matter what, you have to do 60 days before you get your Class 1. When you reach Class 1, you get out the field. But until then, you’re on “hoe squad” or “field utility,” which is the same thing as hoe squad, but you get to sit down on your water breaks.

They say work is voluntary, but if you don’t go to work you will get a disciplinary and go to Class 4, and as long as you’re in Class 4, you will not be able to go home unless you get “max flat,” which is your whole sentence.

A former cotton plantation, Arkansas’ Cummins Unit is an 18,000-acre prison farm where prisoners are forced to do unpaid farm work – slave labor permitted by the 13th Amendment – in the most difficult way possible. 

You have to be at least Class 2 to go home on your “TE date,” which is like your good behavior early release date. This is Jim Crow slavery still going strong.

Here in Arkansas, we do not get paid for the work we do.

We load up on a chain of trailers with a tractor to pull them. It’s very unsafe. We done ran into a ditch, flipped over, inmates done fell off, been thrown off and fell through the old wooden trailers.

The roads are homemade dirt roads with all types of potholes, so just imagine what the roads look like and how a tractor with hella trailers attached to it would bounce around on the dirt road.

Sometimes there be thorns when you pick some of the stuff in the garden. We do not get gloves or anything to protect us. We might as well be picking cotton.

When we get to the garden, we line up on the rows, get a bag and start picking different things depending on which section we’re in. We have every type of food that can be grown, and we have to pick it by hand.

We have the “hoe squad” riders on their horses with their guns and cowboy hats like some real slave masters.

They rush you to pick the food and make homosexual slurs to the inmates. They yell at you all day. They disrespect you. They tell you, “Hurry up and move up that row. Pick everything off the stock, don’t skip my corn” or whatever we are picking.

They think this stuff is really theirs and they will get a raise or something. It’s really just they way of making our work as hard as possible. They are some real boot lickers.

An Arkansas Department of Corrections officer patrols a cell block at Cummins Unit near Pine Bluff, Arkansas. – Photo: Danny Johnston, AP

It’s hella crazy: We are at work from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the summer, and from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. then back at 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. the rest of the year.

Sometimes there be thorns when you pick some of the stuff in the garden. We do not get gloves or anything to protect us. We might as well be picking cotton.

The bad thing is there are machines that can do the work and we have the machines here, but the ADC wants the inmates to do the work the hardest way possible.

Then sometimes we get a garden hoe and go chop grass. We line up single file line. The hoe squad riders will tell us to “put your dick in the man in front of you back pocket” and chop grass.

I’m not talking about grass in the garden, just grass around the plantation. They will make us hit the ground until it’s dirt and clear a whole area with the garden hoe. We cut grass with a garden hoe. We will have blisters on our hands; we still have to keep working or get a disciplinary.

The hoe squad riders don’t care about nothing but clearing the area and doing it fast. If you’re not working fast enough, you will get a disciplinary at the end of the day. 

Then the hoe squad riders talk about you, curse you out, call you all types of names, just disrespectful in front of everybody, hundreds of inmates.

The worst part of it all is almost all hoe squad riders are Black!

In 2018, Mother Jones magazine published “Shockingly Candid Photos of Life on a 1970s Arkansas Prison Farm,” depicting life on the Cummins prison farm in the 1970s. At that time, the guards were armed prisoners, a practice that then Arkansas Department of Corrections Commissioner Terrell Don Hutto was about to end when this photo was taken in 1971. – Photo: Bruce Jackson 

The major is Black. We even have a Black warden over the whole unit. They’re so brainwashed that they treat their own kind like slaves. They act like slave masters for real.

It’s just disappointing how far they are behind here in Arkansas. Nobody stands up for nothing important. 

They won’t even let urban novels come in anymore, saying it’s “sexually explicit.” Certain movies we can’t watch like “Straight Outta Compton,” “Power,” “Snowfall,” but we can watch all the white supremacist movies like “Vikings,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Justified” and the list goes on.

It’s just hella sad how 90 percent of the employees here at ADC Cummins Unit is Black, with a female Black warden and we can’t watch Black-oriented movies, cannot receive Black-oriented books or magazines and we are treated like slaves with an almost all Black staffed unit.

We say Black Lives Matter, but we forgot to tell ourselves.

Send our brother some love and light: Lee Foster, 142627. P.O. Box 500, Grady, AR 71644.