Rylander's Prison Plans Not Sewn Up

Comptroller Rylander seeks to aid the war effort with Texas prisoners.

Rylander's Prison Plans Not Sewn Up
Illustration By Doug Potter

Two weeks ago, with much rhetorical pomp and circumstance, Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander announced her Texas War Relief Package: her homemade response to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "I am 'a little' past recruiting age," she said in a press release 'quoting' herself, "but by God I can and I will lead the charge here at home to support the families and children of these fine men and women as they do what must be done." Her plan includes 20 proposals that can be implemented immediately and an additional 50 requiring legislation. "Texas state government must tackle this historic task," Rylander said.

Under the header "What We Can Do Now" are benign proposals -- for instance, ensuring college scholarships go to children whose parents are injured, disabled, or killed in war efforts -- and maybe-not-so-benign ones, such as loosening regulations on oil and gas operators (a perennial Capitol favorite). But in true patriotic fashion, Rylander (who recently declared for re-election) excludes no one from the relief effort -- even those citizens currently stuck behind bars. Under the subtitle "Revenue & Tax," Rylander suggests (among other things) "manufacturing relief items, such as clothing and machinery, through prison labor."

Elaborating, policy analyst Ned Muñoz of the comptroller's strategic policy initiatives division says prisoners in the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice system might be called upon to make uniforms and blankets, or to refurbish military buses and trucks on an as-needed basis. Many of the nearly 8,000 prisoners in Texas Correctional Industries -- the branch of TDCJ that oversees prison production -- already perform such work, he says, though the feds have yet to ask TCI for help.

Nothing is set in stone, and no contracts have been signed, Muñoz and TDCJ spokesman Larry Todd stress. "Our thought is by doing this, it saves taxpayers money because the government wouldn't have to pay as much for the products," Muñoz says. Since prisoners can't take vacations or sick days and don't receive wages, labor costs are as low as they go [above outright slavery, of course]. "That's where you're going to save money. ... There's an efficiency angle."

Just how efficient remains a mystery. Established in 1963 and stationed in 43 facilities across 35 Texas correctional institutions -- heavily concentrated in East Texas -- TCI produces a wide variety of items (including American flags, made at Gatesville) for state agencies, school districts, and other tax-supported entities, but it technically can't compete with private industry. The point is to reduce recidivism, reduce prison costs, and give prisoners job skills. In addition to current TCI laborers and the roughly 15,000 prisoners handling laundry and other duties, tens of thousands of prisoners could be called up to work for TCI, TDCJ estimates.

"I assume we could convert our industry [to make war relief items] with the proper authority," says Todd, adding that some priority shuffling and reorganization would be necessary. Yet he isn't sure if using prison labor in this scenario would be as cheap as Rylander's office suggests. "Common wisdom would indicate that, but who knows? Inmates are so transient, we have to retrain them constantly." And TCI has "more business than we can handle" re-doing school buses and dump trucks for county governments. As for additional assignments, "I don't know if we're geared for that."

Muñoz acknowledges that the state doesn't yet know exactly whether the plan is feasible. Strategic policy initiatives division manager Ruthie Ford adds that her department is still identifying issues that would require changes in legislation and is also "putting price tags on them." The goal is to complete research in a few weeks, she says. Rylander hasn't given a deadline when the proposal might be finalized.

State Rep. Terri Hodge (D-Dallas), who takes great interest in internal TDCJ prison issues, believes Rylander's proposal contains some good ideas, but that current wording does not lend sufficient dignity to inmates and their labor. "Maybe what [Rylander] meant is that we have an extremely large prison population, and in this instance we will use it very effectively," Hodge says. "But the idea that we've got all these prisoners doing nothing, and here's some work, is very misleading." Some prisoners can't work due to health or disciplinary reasons. Earlier this week, members of Hodge's staff attended a meeting between TCI head John Benestante (who couldn't be reached for comment) and representatives of Rylander's office.

All this talk of free prison labor during an economic slump begs the question: What about the state's growing number of unemployed residents? Muñoz says that since many folks who have lost their jobs in the past year worked in the high tech, airline, or some other industry, crossover is unlikely. "We're talking about cut-and-sew and mechanical type jobs," he said.

Although sweatshop laborers overseas produce much of the clothing Americans wear, many Texans do hold jobs in textile manufacturing. "To turn to prison labor as a way of saving costs right now is like looking at [Texan] people and saying, 'we don't care about your jobs,'" says Texas AFL-CIO spokesman Ed Sills. While the AFL-CIO hasn't criticized Rylander for her package, nor entirely disapproves of prison labor, "We are if it's going to take jobs out of the private sector."

Sills questions the political intent of Rylander's proposal, but gives the comptroller "the benefit of the doubt" that her response was made in good faith. Some ideas "would be useful," he says, such as the scholarship programs and job protections for state employees who serve the war effort. "But if you're going to come up with a proposal," he adds, "you may want to vet it before you put it out."

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Carol Keeton Rylander, Texas War Relief Package, Sept. 11 attacks, World Trade Center, Pentagon, prison labor, Ned Muñoz, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Texas Correctional Industries, Larry Todd, Ruthie Ford, Terry Hodge, John Benestante, AFL-CIO, Ed Sills

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