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Slave Labor Supplanting Welfare State

By Ronald Young

Texas has a history rooted in the Southern antebellum traditions of religion and slavery. One of the cornerstones of Texas governor and presidential hopeful George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" is what he calls faith-based social programs. Bush is of the belief that religious organizations are best suited for delivering human services to the poor.

In modern day Texas, many of these faith-based organizations receive foodstuffs from regional food banks for distribution to the needy. And in keeping alive Texas' rich Southern heritage, slave labor-prison slave labor-is being used in conjunction with the food banks to glean, harvest, and prepare food for the state's hungry masses.

Though Texas is ranked 47th among the 50 states for delivery of social services, and 50th in overall per capita spending, it is 9th in per capita spending for prisons, according to The Nation. Texas incarcerates more of its residents -- 7.2 per 1,000 -- than any other state. While the Lone Star State continues to cut welfare rolls, revenues for operating the massive prison system have grown to approximately $2.6 billion annually.

Currently the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), which operates the state's prisons, state jails, and paroles division, is participating with food banks throughout Texas on several major projects. The largest of these projects are Texas Fresh Approach, Texas Gleaning Program, Unit Garden Food Bank Projects, and Texas Second Chance. The food bank programs have grown over the past five years even as state officials claim that the robust economy has caused a dramatic decrease in welfare recipients.

According to a report by the Agribusiness, Land and Minerals Division of the TDCJ, Texas Fresh Approach was provided with 1.1 million pounds of vegetables for the eleven month period reported for 1999. Prison slaves from twelve prisons and two state jails were forced at gun-point to harvest this abundant crop that found its way to seven different food banks across the state. For their part in this charitable act, Texas prisoners worked in "hoe squads" under some of the most brutal and extreme conditions imaginable. Working in temperatures approaching 100 degrees, these slaves of the state are afforded few water breaks as horse-mounted, gun-toting prison guards keep the work pace fast and furious. Though many prisoners succumb to exhaustion and the searing Texas heat, not one receives so much as a penny for their hard labor.

The Texas Gleaning Program uses prison slaves to harvest private fields of fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be destroyed. Continued expansion of this program is planned in the South Texas and Rio Grande Valley areas. These are depressed areas of the state where chronic unemployment hovers at around 20-25 percent despite the so-called "hot economy." No less than two dozen new prisons and state jails constructed in recent years are located in these areas, thus providing an endless slave labor force -- the slave laborers gleaned substantially from the ranks of unemployed residents.

The Houston Food Bank alone received 3.7 million pounds of various fruits and vegetables through these gleaning operations. Coming in at a distant second was the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley which benefited by the receipt of 2.4 million pounds of slave-gleaned produce. The combined total of the gleaning operations for the first eleven months of 1999, was 6.4 million pounds of fruits and vegetables.

Several prisons and state jails across the state participate in Unit Garden Food Bank Projects. Vegetables from this program are supplied to a wide spectrum of nonprofit organizations, from senior citizen centers to childrens' homes. Participating groups supply the seed and fertilizer, and the state supplies the slaves who grow and pick the produce. For the reported eleven month period of 1999, 275,641 pounds of fresh vegetables were provided to eight of these nonprofit organizations.

The Texas Second Chance Program provides slaves from the state's gulags in the form of trusties who labor in the warehouse facilities of the various food banks. During the first eleven months of 1999, over 63 million pounds of food was received and distributed by prisoners working in this program.

In January 2000, the Texas Community Kitchen Project began in Dallas to supposedly provide culinary skills training to prisoners from the local Dawson State Jail while providing prepared food for local faith-based agencies to assist in feeding the needy.

What is wrong with this picture? Shouldn't prisoners be made to pay their debt to society by participating in such charitable works as these? On the surface it may seem so, but much more is at work here than meets the eye. Conservative politicians, even so-called "compassionate" ones, would like for the taxpayers to view these slave operations in just such narrow terms. In reality, the poor are being herded into the state gulags at an alarming rate. Their slave labor is then used to provide an obscene form of social welfare which also indentures the free-world needy into workfare peonage. The overall goal appears to be to extract as much slave labor off the backs of the poor as possible, while reducing unemployment and providing subsidized housing in the form of prisons.

TDCJ Agribusiness, Land and Minerals began another partnership in January 1999. The Interagency Cooperation Contract between the TDCJ and the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board (TSSWCB) uses supervised prison slaves in brush clearing gangs on lands that the TSSWCB has identified as having potential to increase watershed yield and increase available supplies of state water. It is the intention of this project to exploit prison slave labor under the guise of "public service" and displace waged employee positions. Currently the Wallace Unit at Colorado City and the San Angelo work camp are providing prisoners to grub cedars and other foliage to control brush and increase the ground water supply in West Texas.

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