off. And all the prisoners volunteered to work without pay, the warden said, to escape the daily rut, to work with their hands or to just be outside again. “By and large, inmates like to work and they like to work hard,” Comstock said with almost paternal pride. “They brought that project on line and they did it for about $200,000.” The $200,000 total price was $300,000 less than what Wackenhut’ s contractor, A&S Steel, had estimated. When the project was complete, Wackenhut officials were reassured that their residents were ready for a more lucrative venture. By 1994, assembly operations were in full swing at Wackenhut, where lines of men wearing protrUding goggles maneuver picks on circuit boards imprinted with electronic mosaics. “Our industry partners, they run real … industries that are profit driven, that are market driven. And that is imperative, in creating an environment, even for the residents to work in. It’s a competitive work force,” Comstock says. Some argue that it is more than competitive. At Wackenhut, LTI pays one dollar a year in rent and $4.25 an hour for inmate labor. According to federal law, inmates must be paid the industry’s prevailing wage if the goods they make are to be sold out of state. Most prisons deduct about 80 percent of the inmates’ wages for the cost of incarceration and victim restitution. “Basically it’s a little for us, a little for the state,” Hervey explains. “It’s not to give us a lot of money, but it’s just to help us, give us a little initiative.” Prisoners are not covered under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, so employers are exempted from paying workers’ compensation benefits and unemployment insurance. The state takes care of health care. And a prison environment offers other perks for an employer. “I think normally when you work in the free world you have people that, many days, for one reason or another, they call in sick or they have car problems, they have family problems,” LTI President Hilt says. “[The inmates] may have family problems, but they’re not apparent here. The residents are here every day. They’re punctual. They’re here at the assigned time that they’re supposed to be. They don’t go on vacations and they have a very good attitude in going to work.” Texas AFL-CIO President Joe Gunn complained that when LTI moved into the Lockhart facility, Wackenhut ignored requirements that prison labor not compete with local workers or businesses. According to state Comptroller John Sharp’s 1994 Texas Performance Review, Gaining Ground: Progress and Reform in Texas Government, prisons must qualify under the federal Prison Industries Enwith private companies. Prison industry programs must “consult with organized labor and local business that might be affected by the industry before startup, to ensure that inmate labor will not displace local workers,” the Comptroller reported. Gunn said the AFL-CIO was not consulted. “To our knowledge, no labor organization was consulted before these programs began,” he said. Labor officials were told by federal prosecutors that the requirements to consult with organized labor and local businesses as well as prohibiting the displacement of workers no longer appears in the law. However, Comstock said, the company obtained documentation from the Texas Employment Commission that the prison industries would not displace “free-world workers.” LTI was planning to move to Mexico, he said, so they followed PIE guidelines under a provision that encourages prisons to seek out companies that might move out of the local area or outside the United States. p RISON LABOR HAS A LONG history in America: In the 19th century, convicts worked in garment factories and coal mines and on plantations and railroads. Between 1883 and 1885, Texas prisoners provided much of the manual labor to build the state Capitol in Austin. “Prisoners had to work long hours, they were not paid for their labor,” said Paul Lucko, a prison historian at the University of Texas at Austin. “They worked similar to the way slaves worked.” But public outcry against corruption and unfair competition led to reforms in the use of prison labor. During the 1950s, inmates were limited to such work as making license plates and furniture sold to state agencies. But as states come under increasing pres sure to cut costs, and as crime busters demand more than stricter sentencing laws and the removal of recreational amenities from prisons, anti-crime rhetoric includes calls to put prisoners to work. In March, the state of Alabama reinstated chain gangs, and inmates chained together at the ankles are now picking up litter along the state’s highways. In state and federal prisons, inmates make goods ranging from military uni forms to dormitory furniture to component parts for personal computers. Oregon State Penitentiary inmates in Pendleton make stylish blue jeans called “Prison Blues” that sell in the United States for about $30 apiece. In October 1994, Oregon voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initia tive requiring inmates to work and abolish ing non-competition restrictions and pre vailing-wage requirements. But it’s private businesses that are now expanding in the nation’s prisons. TWA em ploys inmates from the Ven tura County juvenile facility in Southern California to take airline reservations. Toys `12′ Us hired Illinois prisoners to do demolition work and stock shelves at an outlet in Aurora in 1993. Be tween 1989 and 1992, Ohio prisoners manufactured auto parts that were supplied to Honda Motors by Weastec Corporation, and today, more than 700 inmates in Ohio’s prison sys tem work for nearly 20 private companies. As the promise of profits begins to bear fruit for LTI, Hilt’s initial doubts about the move are waning. “We have the residents to a point where they’re working well,” Hilt said. “We have a continuous training program going on that we should be able to make more money inside the facility here than in the free world.” “When you operate a prison industry operation, for all practical purposethat’s employees or residents, that’s their whole life,” Comstock says. “So they’re very dedicated to the job.” WHILE WORK MIGHT provide meaningful activity for idle prisoners and a labor pool for private employers, some contend that prison labor is an affront to human rights. “You know it’s a crime to put somebody to work under the conditions that we criticize China for,” says the labor federation’s Gunn. “Absolute indentured slavery. That’s all you can call it. Anybody who calls it less than that wants to look at the world through rose-colored glasses.” Former Wackenhut Industry Officer Dawn Hankleman argues that prison work programs might not stop inmates from re 10 MAY 5, 1995
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