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Texas Correctional Industries: Providing Useful Work Skills or Slave Labor?

Texas Correctional Industries: Providing Useful Work Skills or Slave Labor?

With factories employing more than 5,000 prisoners at 37 facilities, mostly in the eastern part of the state, Texas Correctional Industries (TCI) is a large and diversified operation. However, critics question the relevance of the job skills that prisoners learn, and even TCI has acknowledged slow progress in modernizing its industry programs.

Established by state law in 1963, TCI manufactures a wide selection of goods that range from furniture and garments to refurbished computers. TCI also operates soap and detergent factories, metal fabrication facilities, sign shops, and boot and shoe manufacturing plants, and produces bedding, janitorial supplies, Texas state flags and, of course, license plates. Industry programs also include tire repair and retreading, printing services, renovating school buses and Braille transcription.

TCI provides goods and services to “city, county, state and federal agencies, public schools, public and private institutions of higher education, public hospitals and political subdivisions.”

Critics claim that many of the job skills learned by prisoners in TCI industry programs will be virtually useless after they’re released because they involve outdated techniques or industries that are scarce in Texas. For example, there are relatively few soap and detergent plants or flag manufacturers in the state. Or license plate factories.

Those supportive of TCI counter that the most important skill learned may simply be how to keep a job, because 40% of the prisoners who work in TCI programs have never been employed outside of prison. Additionally, TCI’s Offender Work & Training Programs Division offers opportunities for eligible prisoners to “learn specialized, technical job skills and earn national certifications,” according to the agency’s website.

One TCI operation that encompasses modern technology is the computer recovery program, consisting of two computer repair labs – one at the Wynne Unit in Huntsville and the other at the Daniel Unit in Snyder. Prisoners repair, refurbish or recycle up to 125 tons of computers and electronic equipment each month.

“You can tell the age of the computers by how yellow they are,” said TCI computer repair shop supervisor Bob Stoudt, who noted that many schools are desperate to keep old computer systems in working condition because they are unable to afford new ones.

TCI boasts that it “benefits the state of Texas by generating cost savings by providing quality products and services to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and other eligible agencies and political subdivisions of the state.”

But complaints about the program center on the long hours worked by prisoners, often in industries that do not translate to marketable job skills, for no pay while under the watchful eye of prison guards and the threat of discipline if they do not work. Critics say such an artificial environment is hardly a model for success in the job market outside prison.

Only a small number of Texas prisoners receive wages for their labor – those who participate in the TCI’s Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) Certification Program, a partnership between the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and private companies. Prisoners employed in PIE programs manufacture goods that are sold on the open market.

Two PIE programs, both based at the Lockhart Unit, produce AC parts and heating valves for Henderson Controls, Inc., and computer boards and wire harnesses for OnShore Resources. As of December 31, 2013, a total of 110 Texas prisoners were employed in PIE programs (around 2% of TCI workers), earning wages that range from $7.78 to $10.28 per hour.

According to TCI, deductions are withheld from the paychecks of PIE workers for “taxes, room and board, dependent support, restitution, and a contribution to a crime victims’ fund.” The PIE program was implemented in Texas in 1993 and, since then, nearly $20 million has been returned to the state through deductions from prisoners’ wages.

Prison manufacturing has a long history in Texas. The first Texas prison was opened in Huntsville in 1849; four years later, it had been equipped with a textile plant where prisoners could process 500 bales of cotton and three tons of wool per year. In the modern version of that industry program, today Texas prisoners manufacture tens of thousands of shirts and pairs of socks, pants and underwear each month in TCI textile factories, which significantly reduces clothing expenses for the state prison system.

Still, critics maintain that TCI uses prisoners as the equivalent of unpaid slave workers who toil under the constant threat of punishment, which reduces the likelihood that such industry programs will convert them into competent, motivated employees following their release. The best that can be hoped, opponents argue, is that some prisoners might learn good work habits, such as showing up for their jobs on time and putting in a full day’s labor.

Sources: Houston Chronicle,, interviews with Texas prisoners

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