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Texas Prisoners Build Their Own Cages

Texas increased its prison population over the past ten years from 37,000 to a soon-to-be 145,000. At one point, the lack of prison space kept a backlog of 35,000 state prisoners in county jails. All told, the state paid more than $650 million in court-imposed fines because of overcrowded prison conditions.

In the early 1990's Texas voters approved $2 billion in bonds for an unprecedented prison expansion program, but according to Wayne Scott, director of the TDCJ Institutional Division, the new beds were brought on-line for $1.5 billion.

"We built 75,000 prison beds in four years--that's like building the fourth largest prison system in the country," says Scott, "and we were able to do it ahead of schedule and under budget."

There were two main reasons the state was able to accomplish this gargantuan feat, and do so at a cost estimated to be one-half of the national average for prison construction: the use of a prototypical (cookie-cutter) design done by in-house architectural teams and the extensive use of unpaid prisoner labor.

'Almost all of the furnished items that go into the prisons are manufactured by the prison inmates in our state, including the bed, mattress, the pillow, the combination sink and toilet, the stainless steel chase wall, the light fixture, and the door that fits into the cell," says Scott. "The only thing that we didn't manufacture that goes into the cell are the walls and the floors that are poured-in-place concrete."

That will soon change, however, in the next round of construction. Because the state expects to fill up its remaining 10,000 empty beds by the fall of 1996, it has already embarked on further expansion. The state plans to add 12,000 new beds at existing facilities.

According to Scott, the TDCJ has set up batch plants at each of the proposed construction sites where unpaid prisoner laborers will actually manufacture the concrete cells.

"By doing that, we're able to make a maximum security cell," says Scott, "for about $35,000 per cell. The national average for such a cell runs between $80,000 and $100,000."

According to Scott, prisoners will be trained to make the forms, put them in place, and pour the concrete walls and floors. They will also provide the labor for upfitting the cells as well as support facilities, and will do almost all of the painting and landscaping for new facilities.

Texas currently has more than forty prison industries, including a steel furniture plant that produces parts for new prisons. In 1995, these prison industries produced more than $100 million worth of goods and services--all with unpaid, virtual slave labor, not only for prisons but also for other state agencies, cities, and counties.

As far as the latest construction effort goes, Scott says that the only work that will be contracted out to private entities will be some construction management functions and some of the electrical and plumbing work. All electronic devices will be installed by the manufacturer in order for the warranties to apply.

When Texas prisoners finish building the 12,000 new cells, they will be caged in them, and there will be plenty of room left over for new prisoners - like unemployed construction workers, furniture plant workers, painters, and landscapers who turn to jobs in the "illegal economy" in order to feed their families and pay their rent. Once they get to prison, though, they'll find that jobs are aplenty. So what if the prison jobs don't pay? At least it comes with three hots and a cot.

Source: Corrections Cost Control & Revenue Report

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