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Dirty Work Shows the Toll Bad Jobs Take on the People Who Do Them

Capitalism has created a world full of bad and brutal jobs, from meatpackers to drone operators. Capitalists created these jobs — only organized workers can get rid of them.

People who work in slaughterhouses are among the people Eyal Press classifies as doing “dirty work.” (Natalie Behring / AFP via Getty Images)

Darren Rainey was an inmate at the Dade Correctional Institution in Miami-Dade County, Florida. He suffered from schizophrenia and was housed in the Transitional Care Unit (TCU), the prison’s mental health ward. In June 2012, Rainey supposedly defecated in his cell and wouldn’t clean it up. The prison’s guards placed him in a shower and directed scalding water at him through a rigged-up hose. The water’s temperature was 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Rainey died with burns on 90 percent of his body, and skin that fell off at the touch. A fellow prisoner, Harold Hempstead, whose cell was below the shower where Rainey was killed, later said he heard Rainey scream repeatedly and kick the door of the stall. Then, he heard a thud — Rainey collapsing, dead.

In Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America, Eyal Press — no relation to me, so far as I’m aware — introduces Rainey’s story by way of Harriet Krzykowski, who was a mental health counselor in the TCU at the time of his death. Before the torture took place, Krzykowski had asked a guard about Rainey on his last day alive and was told the guards would give him a shower, the danger of which she was not aware. The next day, upon learning from nurses on the ward how Rainey had died, Krzykowski was “stunned,” writes Press. “Surely, she told the nurses, the incident would prompt a criminal investigation.”

The nurses swiftly corrected her, explaining that the torture would be covered up.

And so it was. No one on the mental health staff filed a report, Krzykowski included. She had previously been retaliated against by the guards for speaking up about a more minor incident, and she felt she couldn’t afford to lose her job — she was supporting two young children on the $12 an hour paid to her by Corizon Health, the private contractor in charge of providing mental health services at Dade.

“I thought, somebody has to report it, and it has got to come from the inside, but it’s not going to be me,” she told Press. As it turns out, the only person who did so was Hempstead, the other prisoner. On May 17, 2014, the Miami Herald published a story about abuse of mentally ill inmates at Dade like Rainey, with Hempstead as an anonymous source.

Such silence from staff in the face of prisoner mistreatment by guards is not unusual, Press notes. In much of the United States, the institution that holds the most people with severe mental illnesses is not a hospital but a jail or a prison — in Los Angeles, the largest mental health institution is the Los Angeles County jail system. Once inside, these prisoners are routinely abused. A 2015 report by Human Rights Watch found that excessive force — from chemical sprays to stun guns to extended solitary confinement — was regularly administered to the 360,000 prisoners in the United States with mental illnesses. Amid such torture, the mental health staff often remain silent: a survey by Correctional Health Services in New York City found that more than one-third of such personnel report feeling “that their ethics were regularly compromised in their work setting,” with many citing the possibly of retaliation from security staff as a reason for their actions.

Press’s book is concerned with the people whose work frequently presents such dilemmas. He calls these jobs “dirty work,” by which he means work that “causes substantial harm either to other people or to nonhuman animals and the environment, often through the infliction of violence,” “is injurious to the people who do it, leading them either to feel devalued or stigmatized by others or to feel that they have betrayed their own core values or beliefs,” and is seen as dirty and morally compromised by “good people” yet is nonetheless contingent on a tacit mandate from those same people, who see such work as a necessary part of the social order.

Krzykowski and her colleagues who provide mental health treatment inside of jails and prisons are one such type of worker. Others are correctional officers (such as the prison guards who killed Rainey), drone pilots, people who work in slaughterhouses, and those involved in the oil and gas industry. Press is careful not to equate the violence enacted by, say, someone who carries out illegal drone assassinations with that enacted by a poultry-plant worker, but he argues that what ties such people together is that their work includes the possibility of “moral injury,” a term he takes from psychiatrist Jonathan Shay’s 1994 book on Vietnam War veterans, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. In his book, Shay argues that veterans “can usually recover from horror, fear, and grief . . . so long as ‘what’s right’ has not also been violated.” Dirty workers are faced with moral injury as a matter of routine occupational hazard.

In this respect, Press’s book is a powerful, thoroughly reported telling of the effects such injury has on workers. Krzykowski, the Dade counselor, experienced flashbacks and depression when the Miami Herald published its story on prisoner abuse at Dade. “I always felt there was a right and there was a wrong and that was all there was to it,” she told Press. “Now her view was muddled and blurred, washed in the gray light of her experience,” Press writes. “Was she a victim of the system, or an instrument of it? Whose side had she been on?”

Other dirty workers experience more severe symptoms. Christopher Aaron, a drone analyst, has waves of nausea, eruptions of skin welts, and chronic digestive problems. Press introduces us to a prison guard who tried to kill himself and only lived because his gun’s cartridge jammed. Tales of suicide and substance abuse abound among these workers: they know what they do is wrong, but they feel powerless to act otherwise. Press’s point is that many of the people who take these jobs do so because they are relatively powerless: they are undocumented, people of color, members of communities with few other opportunities to make a decent living. And on the rare occasions when abuse is revealed — at Abu Ghraib, for instance, or in prisons — it is the people lowest on the ladder who take the blame, while those overseeing the system, mandating abuse and directing it, remain untouched. It is inequality, violence, and unfairness all the way down.

Who’s to Blame?

Insofar as all of this is a case for thinking beyond “good people” and “bad people,” it’s effective. Press has gone to great lengths to shine a light on meticulously guarded institutions and tell these peoples’ stories — it’s not easy to access a meatpacking plant, much less get a drone pilot to speak to a labor journalist — and they’re worth hearing. But his broader argument is less convincing.

Throughout Dirty Work, Press draws on the work of sociologist Everett Hughes, who used the phrase “dirty work” to make sense of what he found upon visiting post–World War II Germany, which was that the “good people” — not Nazis but cosmopolitans, intellectuals, the type of people a University of Chicago sociologist would know — still averred that Jews were a problem about which something needed to be done. In formulating his theory, Hughes was thinking of his fellow Americans: like their German counterparts, they were “good people” who mandated dirty work, even if unconsciously and while disavowing it.

But when it comes to much of the work Press details, the idea of a public mandate rings false. He offers little evidence  that the average person wants any of the horrors detailed in the book, be it drone assassinations, inadequate mental health treatment or abuse of prisoners, slaughterhouse workers wearing diapers on the line because they cannot use the bathroom, or a survivor of the Deepwater Horizon disaster being left to watch his life fall apart as his community is poisoned.

At one point in the book, Toby Blomé, a Code Pink activist, makes a similar observation:

The high-tech killing conducted by drone operators happened not because targeted assassinations were essential to national security, Blomé told me, but because of the outsize influence of the military-industrial complex, a cabal of for-profit contractors and special interests that distorted America’s priorities and profited from its endless wars.

The objection is dismissed. “But the truth is that the drone program doesn’t just serve the interests of military contractors. It also serves the interests of a disengaged public that doesn’t want to think too much about the endless wars being fought in its name and, thanks to the drone campaign, doesn’t have to,” writes Press. Blomé’s argument is too easy, in his view. And yet, many of those who object to the deaths of US soldiers object to the wars, too: they don’t want drones. The problem is that they don’t have the power to stop wars.

Or, consider Press’s take on the policy changes that led Florida to contract out prisons’ mental health services to companies like Corizon Health, Krzykowski’s employer, all but ensuring inmates would receive worse treatment: “Judged by this standard, contracting out medical services in Florida’s prisons was a flagrant betrayal of the public’s trust. Yet a case could be made that it was nothing of the sort — that, to the contrary, Wexford and Corizon delivered exactly what the public expected and perhaps secretly desired.” Setting aside the questionable practice of speculating on the public’s secret desires, it’s simply not true that public policies map neatly onto the public’s preferences.

Political leaders often follow the preferences of the rich and powerful: lobbyists, donors to political campaigns, employers in their home districts, friends in their social milieu. Short of revolution, working-class people’s best means of determining policy is through collective institutions — unions, for instance, not to mention an organized left that can push for radical change — that have been weakened by a decades-long offensive by those very same people. Even a massive show of force can prove powerless: lest we forget, millions of people in the United States marched against the Iraq War, to no immediate effect.

In one scene in the book, Press attends a ceremony at a Veterans Health Administration hospital in Philadelphia. There, veterans speak of the “moral transgressions” they had committed, and then the audience speaks:

“We sent you into harm’s way,” they chanted in unison. “We put you into situations where atrocities were possible. We share responsibility with you: for all that you have seen; for all that you have done; for all that you have failed to do.”

We need a society-wide version of this ceremony, argues Dirty Work. But ours is an era rife with acknowledgment and ritual self-disclosure — of privilege, specifically — and such acts don’t seem to lead to meaningful change.

And, it must be said, the people at that ceremony did not, in fact, send those veterans into harm’s way, nor did a general “we” put dirty workers in their “situations.” Specific individuals and institutions did — and obfuscating their responsibility is a waste of precious time.