With factories employing 5,200 prisoners at 37 Texas prisons, Texas Correctional Industries (TCI) is a large operation. It is also a diversified operation with furniture factories, computer repair facilities, soap and detergent factories, metal fabrication facilities, boot and shoe manufacturing plants, sign shops, mattress manufacturing and, of course, license plate stamping.
Critics have noted that many of the skills imparted to prisoners who work at TCI facilities are virtually useless once they are released from prison. For instance, there are few soap and detergent plants or furniture factories in Texas. Supporters counter that the most important skill the prisoners learn may simply be how to keep a job since 40% of the prisoners who start work at TCI have never held down a job outside of prison. This assertion is questionable as TCI operates in an artificial environment of wageless slaves being forced to labor under threat of disciplinary action with a legion of guards ready to enforce the work requirement. Hardly a model for success outside of prison.
One TCI program that cannot be accused of uselessness is computer repair and recovery. There are two computer repair labs. At the Wynne Unit lab, prisoners repair or discard as unrepairable up to 125 tons of broken electronics each month.
"You can tell the age of the computers by how yellow they are," said Bob Stoudt, TCI computer repair shop supervisor, noting that many schools are desperate to keep old machines alive since they are unable to afford new ones due to statewide budget cuts.
Manufacturing industries has a long history in Texas prisons. The first prison in Texas was opened in Huntsville in 1849. By 1853, it had been equipped with a textile plant enabling prisoners to process 500 bales of cotton and three tons of wool a year. This traditional occupation remains and currently prisoners manufacture 120,000 pairs of socks, 11,000 towels, 85,000 shirts, 85,000 pairs of pants and 75,000 pairs of underwear a month in TCI textile plants. This saves the prison system 25-50% over purchasing clothing.
As advantageous for the state as it may be, it is hard to argue that turning Texas prisoners into unpaid slaves under threat of punishment somehow converts them into viable workers outside of prisons. This claim would be much more realistic were Texas to pay its prisoners, even a meager wage, for their labor and watch them compete to work. Although the current system might engender Good work habits in some prisoners, it plants the seeds of bitterness and resentment in others who are not fond of the idea of havint to get up at 3:00 a.m. to labor for the man all day long.
Sources: Houston Chronicle, prisoner interviews
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