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Prisoners in Texas Jail Providing Less Slave Labor

According to Taylor County, Texas Sheriff Les Bruce, prisoners at the county jail in Abilene are performing less free labor than in the past.

Bruce allowed low-risk prisoners convicted of non-violent offenses to perform work for the county in exchange for three days of good conduct time for each day of labor. Prisoners have traditionally worked on crews that clean up the roads, pick up trash at illegal dump sites, and perform lawn care and grounds maintenance on county-owned property.

“It’s hard to put a dollar figure on what work crews have saved the county,” said Precinct 1 County Commissioner Randy Williams. “But over the past 10 years, it has to be in the millions.”

However, Sheriff Bruce began running a greatly reduced set of work crews in 2012. Several years ago he regularly had over 30 prisoners who qualified to work in the crews; the average is now between 10 and 15. And just because prisoners qualify doesn’t mean they’re ready to work.

“Before you turn an inmate loose with a chainsaw or a Weed Eater, you have to do some training,” stated Precinct 3 County Commissioner Stan Egger. “Now, by the time you have someone trained, they’re getting out of jail.”

One reason for the reduction in the work crews is that prisoners are receiving shorter sentences or being transferred to the state prison system faster than in the past. Also, those who remain at the jail aren’t as able or willing to work.

“It’s not just training that’s lacking,” Bruce said. “We’ve seen a generational shift in our inmate population. The days are over when inmates would show up knowing they’d be incarcerated for a few months and would want to work to reduce their time.”

An escape from a work crew that occurred in December 2011 also complicated the situation. In that incident, a 22-year-old prisoner jumped off a bus that was returning a work crew to the jail; he remained at large for two hours. Bruce said it was another sign of a change in attitude among the jail’s population.

“In interviews with folks who’ve walked off work crews, they said they knew they would be recaptured, but all they were thinking about was tonight, about seeing their sweetie for half a day,” he stated.

After the escape, Bruce halved the number of prisoner work crews from four to two and assigned two deputies to supervise each crew instead of one. He claimed the change wasn’t connected to the publicity surrounding the escape.

Bruce stopped using prisoners for grounds maintenance at the county courthouse and expo center, too. County Judge Downing Bolls said three unfilled positions at the Sheriff’s Office would be shifted to the county maintenance department to take care of grounds maintenance at those locations.

“I don’t know that county residents will notice a difference with the changes,” Commissioner Egger stated. “We may not get as much accomplished, though, because there’s always work to be done.”

Sheriff Bruce lost in the last primary election and was replaced by one of his deputies who ran against him, Ricky Bishop, on January 1, 2013. Several escapes that occurred during Bruce’s tenure were reportedly a “hot button topic” in the campaign.

Sources: Associated Press,

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