High Tech, Hard Labor

When Derek Hervey was convicted on drug dealing charges in 1993, he landed a sentence of 15 years of hard labor and a ticket to travel through time in the Texas prison system. At a state-run medium-security prison in Sugar Land, Hervey sowed and harvested crops much like prisoners did a century ago. Field work was "hot, hard work, very abusive, kind of like the breaking point," Hervey recalls. "They wanted to let you get all your anger out in there and try to transform you, instill discipline. That was basically what it was designed for." Two years later, Hervey was fast-forwarded into the future. Today, inside a minimum-security prison operated by Wackenhut Corrections Corporation at Lockhart, he assembles circuit boards for a high-tech company. Hervey, 22, considers the months he's spent working for Lockhart Technologies Inc. (LTI) and learning marketable skills as time well-spent. The parts that he and 100 fellow inmates produce are supplied to giants of the PC industry, including IBM, Texas Instruments, Dell Computers and Compaq. Hervey hopes that when he leaves prison his newly acquired skills will help him turn his life around. "It's a big industry," he said. "From what I know, people work for Motorola, Texas Instruments in Dallas.... It's booming and there are a lot of subcontractors. It's something I can apply for returned back into society." Leonard Hilt, president of Lockhart Technologies, is not so optimistic. Although Hilt is pleased with the quality of work done by inmates, he doesn't think they will find similar jobs outside. "I think those people are not going to get jobs identical to what we're doing here," Hilt said. "But there are many small repair places where you have TV repair and computer repair. And they certainly are acquiring skills, soldering skills, that could be applicable in those industries." Hilt understands that job prospects can be limited. American Microelectronics laid off 150 Austin workers before it changed its name to Lockhart Technologies and moved into Wackenhut's Lockhart facility in January 1994. That displacement of workers, in apparent disregard of the prevailing wages and labor opportunities in the area, has union members concerned about bills before the Texas Legislature that would expand prison work programs. Wackenhut is among the frontrunners in the booming private prison industry, only a few lengths behind Corrections Corporation of America, the industry leader. Wackenhut operates 15 private prisons in the United States, four of which are in Texas. It also operates prisons in Australia and England. In Lockhart, 30 miles south of Austin, Wackenhut inmates make components for electronic stethoscopes and navigational devices, brass valves and fittings for air conditioners for Chatleff Controls Inc. and eyeglas s lenses for United Vision Group. Wackenhut warden Scott Comstock says he was looking to the future when he brought those companies into his prison. "We didn't want a license plate manufacturing company back there. We wanted an industry that could provide marketable job skills," Comstock said. "We really wanted an industry that was high-tech." At Wackenhut, even the vernacular sounds like criminology newspeak. Prisons are corrections facilities and prisoners are residents. Prison guards are corrections officers. Guards working in the industrial facility wear suits and are called industry officers. And it's job training and rehabilitation rather than discipline and punishment. And Wackenhut recently took another step in its reworking of criminology, opening a Renaissance facility for women. But it's still a prison. The warden discovered his inmates' capacity for work in 1993, when Wackenhut was scrambling to build a worksite to house LTI's operation. Fifty Texas convicts worked for two-and-a-half months, often for 18 hours a day, helping with the construction of the building that would house LTI's circuit board assembly plant. Comstock said he made the inmates--who often worked from 6 a.m. until midnight--take daily brakes for lunch and dinner. All inmates had Thanksgiving and Christmas off. And all the prisoners who 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 Enhancement Act (PIE) to be able to contract with 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. Prison 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 pressure 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 uniforms 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 initiative requiring inmates to work and abolishing non-competition restrictions and prevailing-wage requirements. But it's private businesses that are now expanding in the nation's prisons. TWA employs inmates from the Ventura County juvenile facility in Southern California to take airline reservations. Toys 'R' Us hired Illinois prisoners to do demolition work and stock shelves at an outlet in Aurora in 1993. Between 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 system 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 purpose--that'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 returning to crime after they are released. "You've got a different class of prisoners now than before. A few years ago you got a guy stealing to feed his family. Now you've got people who steal so they can buy their drugs. These guys are used to making big money on the streets. If you can go out making$100 a night, you're not gonna be happy making four-twenty-five an hour. There is no amount of job training that can change that. You can only rehabilitate a person who wants to be rehabilitated." Hankleman quit her post at Wackenhut in this past year due to what she says was mistreatment of Wackenhut officers. She presently has a worker's compensation and unemployment insurance claim pending against Wackenhut. Comstock contends that as prisoners are managed by a system of incentives, they are learning work skills that will allow them to function in a market economy. Prisoners who work receive "good-time" or time off their sentences. Prisoners who refuse work often receive "set-offs" which detract from their good time. Some inmates at Wackenhut have received as much as a three-year set off. "It's punishment," said Bobby Overstreet, who served time in three Texas prisons, including the Wackenhut prison. While in prison, Overstreet performed various duties, including working out in the field picking mustard greens. "I didn't learn anything. I just did it for good time credit." Still, prison officials promote prison labor as job training that they consider an effective tool for rehabilitating criminals. And the appeal that proselytizers of both punishment and rehabilitation see in putting prisoners to work has facilitated a quiet industrial surge inside penal institutions. In 1994, the Correctional Industries Association reported that federal and state prison industries in the United States employed more than 70,000 inmates and generated more than $1 billion in sales. Texas employs the largest number of inmates among state prisons in the United States. At the end of 1994, Texas state correctional industries employed over 7,000 inmates, a 90-percent increase since 1980, and grossed $93 million in sales, mostly from 80 prison-operated factories. Recently, the Texas House of Representatives moved to create more job opportunities for convicts. A bill introduced by San Antonio Democrat Karyne Conley recently passed in the House. If it is approved by the Senate and signed into law, convict labor will be used to help build the $2 billion in state prisons scheduled for construction in Texas. Representative Ray Allen, a Grand Prairie Republican, has sponsored bills to allow the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to expand work programs and tax incentives for private companies to hire inmate labor. Those measures were attached to H.B. 2162, an omnibus criminal justice bill sponsored by Allen Hightower, Huntsville Democrat, that recently passed the House. Another bill, H.B. 2318 by Allen, which would establish work programs for juveniles in the Texas Youth Commission, was passed by the Correct ions Committee and at press time was awaiting House floor debate. Lobbyists for organized labor hope to get the prison work measures stripped from the omnibus bill in the Senate, as well as to stop the prison construction and TYC work bills. Rick Levy, legal counsel to the Texas AFL-CIO, said Conley's bill, which allows contractors to pay minimum wage to inmates, puts those contractors at a competitive advantage over contractors who employ people from the outside. And prison- labor contractors won't be required to provide training or safety programs or to commit to hire the prisoners when they are released. "It just gives contractors access to a cheap, docile labor force that they don't have to pay workers compensation, unemployment or health insurance for," Levy said. Once strictly a private security firm, Wackenhut Corporation formed Wackenhut Corrections as a subsidiary to operate private detention centers for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In 1988, Wackenhut and CCA each won two contracts to operate private prisons in Texas. And private prison executives are eliminating other obstacles to their entry into the criminal justice market by winning over some who had been adamant opponents. Linda Marin, the executive director of Coalition United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) in Austin, a prisoners'-rights group, says the CURE's initial objections to Wackenhut were allayed after CURE members made unannounced visits to Wackenhut facilities. Marin says she found Wackenhut inmates were more motivated because the inmates are treated more humanely than they would be in state-run prisons in Texas, where inmates who refuse to work are locked down. However prison historian Paul Lucko is wary about looking to private prisons to solve the problem of crime. "Their interests are to make money. They're trying to make a profit. As a panacea, I don't see it." "How much does a private company put dollars above rehabilitation, above what they're doing to the local economy," Gunn says. "They buy off the local establishment by giving some support jobs to that area. They'll hire a few prison guards, they'll hire bookkeepers, they'll hire the accountants.... And this is kind of hush money is what I call it." Comstock contends that "there are no fiscal advantages to us. We're in the prison business, the rehabilitation business." Hankleman disagrees. "Wackenhut does not do anything where there is not a profit. If they weren't making a profit, they wouldn't have added two new industries " And Comstock envisions further growth for Wackenhut. "We would like to expand our employment base here with our residents tremendously. We've only got about a hundred and five inmates employed," Comstock said. "LTI for example has contractually committed to employ 225 residents once their industries are fully expanded." LTI is expanding in a growth industry. The United States has a prisoner population topping one million. With 101,000 inmates behind bars, Texas ranks second in the nation, and by the end of this year the prison population in Texas is projected to reach 146,000. And if current trends continue, most of those coming into the system, like Derek Hervey, will be African-American men convicted of drug-related crimes. At the end of 1993, African Americans, who make up 12.4 percent of the total U.S. population, accounted for 50.6 percent of the state and federal prison population. Drug offenders comprise the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, totaling more than 18 percent of state and federal prisoners. "You have a lot of young men in here. They make mistakes. But they deserve a second chance," Hervey says. "I think you have to educate while they're incarcerated, in order for them to have a chance to go out into society and compete in the job market ... because they already have a strike against them." For now, Hervey reports to work each day, determined to do what he can about that strike against him. author

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