Texas Correctional Industries (TCI), the industrial division of the Texas prison system, has been operating as a cut-rate, custom craft-goods supplier for dozens of Texas legislators. One politician furnished his new home with prisoner made goods. The goods include a dining table with hand-carved state seal adornment, ten chairs, bar stools, kneeling benches, a holy water font and altar chairs all of which cost Democratic state Senator Eddie Lucio $6,319.
Legislators are not the only people who can order personal goods custom made at below-market costs by Texas state prisoners, prison employees and board members can do so too. They can also have furniture refurbished at below-market rates. Some employees refurbish furniture or order newly-made goods in such quantities that they appear to be running a business of reselling the items. Such a business would be very profitable as such work done by prisoners in Texas incurs no labor costs because the prisoners are not paid for their labor.
"Allowing lawmakers to take advantage of not having to pay what they would pay at a retail store, and using it strictly for personal use, does not look good," said Suzy Woodford, the Texas Director of Common Cause, a government watchdog group.
Lucio counters that he has broken no law and paid for the goods with his private funds.
"I like the idea of getting things handcrafted and by prisoners", said Lucio. "That is unique. It is the subject of conversation when people come to visit me. "I say, I ordered it from our own prisoners here."
Texas prisoners are no doubt duly impressed that the products of their forced-slave labor are acting as conversation pieces for Lucio.
Not all legislators' purchases are made using private funds. Republican state Representative Burt Solomons bought five custom-made wet bars adorned with the state seal for $2,135 in campaign funds in 2004. He said the prison-made furniture was used to reward his campaign staff for their hard work.
Republican state Representative Tony Goolsby bought a replica of a historic desk for $1,110 using his campaign funds. Other legislators used campaign funds to purchase prison-made Texas-shaped barbecue grills, bedroom furniture and, other items.
"We're all born the same way, but we're not all equal", said Goolsby. "Everybody gets perks". Goolsby did not explain what perks the unpaid prisoners had gotten.
John Benestante, TCIs director, said the policy of personal sales to lawmakers and state officials is long-standing and predated his assumption of the directorship. It accounts for about 1% of TCIs sales in 2005. Traditionally, legislators used the policy to purchase job-related items, such as furnishings for their offices and constituency gifts like gavels and flag boxes. The purchase of personal items is a newer trend.
The Texas Board of Criminal Justice, the policy-making entity for the Texas prison system, is considering banning private sales of TCI goods to employees and legislators. The sales amounted to $64,000 for legislators and $300,000 for employees in 2005. This doubtlessly understates the real market value of the heavily-discounted goods and services.
Although such sales are small in scale, it is appropriate to review the practice, said Christina Melton Crane, the board's chair. The agency will examine this issue to determine if changes are warranted.
It is hardly surprising that Texas lawmakers are beginning to see the prisoners as their own slave labor force. For years, the legislature has refused to treat its prisoners as human beings--continuing such policies as a ban on prisoner-use phones in the prisons, refusing to pay prisoners for their labor (except in a few private-industry pilot programs and maintaining an arbitrary and capricious system of parole while keeping some of the most draconian sentencing laws in the country on the books. Texas clearly views its prisoners as commodities, not people, much as the Third Reich viewed its prisoners: they are objects of economic exploitation--not redeemable beings worthy of respect.
Sources: Houston Chronicle, Associated Press, eyewitness accounts, Dallas Morning News.
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