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Unpaid Prisoners Clean Up Rita Ravaged Southeast Texas

With few federal funds headed for areas of Southeast Texas devastated by Hurricane Rita, state officials are using the free labor of Texas prisoners to augment clean up efforts.

As of January 30, 2006, prisoners from the Larry Gist State Jail had already cleaned areas of Sabine Pass, Nederland, and Fort Author, according to Warden Dawn Williamson. Plans were also underway for prisoners to help in Orange and at a Beaumont cemetery.

Those performing the clean up work are trusties, prisoners convicted of non violent crimes who are allowed to work in the community without armed guards. Like all Texas prisoners, trusties earn nothing for their labor.
Even more such efforts could be underway. In January federal officials announced that the entire state of Texas would receive only $74.5 million for clean up efforts related to the September 2005 hurricane, a relative pittance according to media reports.

One city counting on the free labor is Orange, which is still littered with crumbling buildings, tree damaged homes, and branch filled ditches. City Manager Shawn Oubre had asked for $10.35 million in federal funds, an amount now out of the question. Oubre said two groups of 10 prisoners each began working in March to clear debris from drainage ditches, demolish homes, and clean some private properties owned by the elderly and disabled. The properties are a health and safety hazard where police and firefighters could injure themselves climbing over debris, said Oubre.

Texas has used free prison labor in the community for decades. When slaves were freed after the Civil War many prisoners worked in the fields as sharecroppers, said Jim Willet, director of the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville. The state rented prisoners out from about 1867 to 1912, he said. Many labored to build railroads. Prisoners were often mistreated and some died on the job. Sometimes a dead mule was more costly than a dead prisoner, said Willet.

Most of the 106 prisons in Texas have trusties, though its unclear how many actually work in the community. But one thing is certain--all that untapped free labor is attractive to cash-strapped city governments. We want to develop a long-term relationship with the warden and inmates, said Oubre. Imagine that.

Source: The Beaumont Enterprise

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