Who’s behind unpaid prison labor in Texas?

by Aaron Cantú

Several of the officials charged with regulating Texas’s prison labor program, wherein thousands of workers behind bars are compelled to produce goods and provide services for free, are connected to some of the richest and most powerful institutions and people in the state.

Prisoners in Texas grow 24 different crops and tend 10,000 head of cattle.
Prisoners in Texas grow 24 different crops and tend 10,000 head of cattle.

The Texas Board of Criminal Justice, which oversees Texas Correctional Industries (TCI), the prison industry division within the state’s Department of Criminal Justice, has authority over how much compensation inmates working for the state receive for their labor. Currently, inmates working for TCI are not paid for the work done while serving their time; the only inmates who are paid anything are the small fraction who are employed by TCI’s private sector prison industries program.

TCI factories are spread throughout 37 prison facilities across the state, and their workers manufacture everything from wooden state signs, various garments including police utility vests, and bedding, to soap, steel kitchenware and even “the most up-to-date ergonomically designed office [furniture] available.” They also provide services such as school bus and computer refurbishing. Total sales for TCI were valued at $88.9 million in FY 2014. TCI also makes products used within the prison system, including inmate garments.

Currently, inmates working for TCI are not paid for the work done while serving their time; the only inmates who are paid anything are the small fraction who are employed by TCI’s private sector prison industries program.

At the moment there are ongoing lockdowns at eight Texas prisons, which follow a general work strike initiated by Texas inmates. A spokesperson from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) told Courthouse News that the lockdowns were routine and “in no way related to the work stoppage.”

But members of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, part of the broader Industrial Workers of the World union that is helping to coordinate the strikes, published a post on April 16 declaring that the ongoing lockdowns – wherein prisoners are barred from contact with the outside world and are confined to their cells – were a reaction to spreading strikes, and alleged that TDCJ was attempting to stifle their momentum.

Incarcerated workers in Texas prisons are demanding that their labor be considered in parole hearings, more humane prison conditions, and the creation of a committee to oversee the TDCJ, among other demands.

At the moment there are ongoing lockdowns at eight Texas prisons, which follow a general work strike initiated by Texas inmates.

The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, which includes inmates, is also helping organize strikes at prisons in other states, including Ohio, Mississippi, Virginia, Alabama and Oregon. The organization is in the planning stages of launching a mass general strike against prison labor – which it likens to modern day slavery – on Sept. 9, 2016.

Who runs Texas Correctional Industries?

TCI is overseen by the nine-member Board of Criminal Justice, whose members are appointed by the governor. According to the 1963 law that established the TCI, the board is responsible for determining prisoners’ pay – which, again, is currently zero for state workers:

“The board may develop by rule and the department may administer an incentive pay scale for work program participants … Prison industries may be financed through contributions donated for this purpose by private businesses contracting with the department. The department shall apportion pay earned by a work program participant in the same manner as is required by rules adopted by the board under Section 497.0581.”

Several of the officials charged with regulating Texas’s prison labor program, wherein thousands of workers behind bars are compelled to produce goods and provide services for free, are connected to some of the richest and most powerful institutions and people in the state.

Among the members of the board include the first African-American elected to serve on the Texas Supreme Court; a nephew of one of the richest and most powerful people in Texas; and prominent attorneys and business people with backgrounds far removed from the criminal justice world. Here’s a map of their connections, and a more detailed analysis of some officials follows:

Dale Wainwright, chair of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice (TBCJ) – Wainwright, the first African-American elected to serve on the Texas Supreme Court, is currently a managing partner in the Austin office of Bracewell & Giuliani, the law firm where former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani is a partner. While there, Wainwright has successfully represented large energy companies, as well as an insurance entity “against thousands of plaintiffs,” according to his profile on the firm’s website. The firm specializes in representation for the energy sector, including fossil fuel companies.

Terrell McCombs, vice-chair of the TBCJ – When McCombs was first appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to the Board in 2007, he said that he was “open-minded and business-minded,” and that his “hope [was] to make (the prison agency) run more efficiently.” McCombs is the nephew of Billy Joe “Red” McCombs, a billionaire from San Antonio who founded Clear Channel Communications and who has owned, at various points, the San Antonio Spurs, the Denver Nuggets and the Minnesota Vikings. Red McCombs also donated $50 million to University of Texas Business School, which is now named after him, and has purchased major influence in Texas through his philanthropic giving.

Terrell McCombs is a former vice president at McComb Enterprises, which his uncle owns, and is currently the chair of Texas’s University Health System Foundation and a partner at the law firm GC Barnes Group. GC Barnes prominently touts its relationships with major military contractors including Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon.

Leopoldo Vasquez III, secretary of the TBCJ – Vasquez is the global director of public affairs at ECOM, a commodities firm based in Switzerland. It owns Houston-based Atlantic Coffee Solutions (formerly known as Maximus Coffee), which processes coffee products for companies like Starbucks, Folgers, Maxwell House and Nestle. Vasquez was listed as vice president of Maximus Coffee by the Texas Directory in 2014; a year before, 90 percent of Maximus’s Houston workers went on strike after the company slashed their wages by half, gutted 401k contributions, and jacked up employee health plan prices. After nearly a month, the strike ended and the workers got nothing; it’s unclear if Vasquez had a role in breaking the strike.

Eric Gambrell, member of the TBCJ – As a corporate lawyer, Gambrell has defended high profile clients in a number of multimillion dollar lawsuits. He is a partner at Akin Gump, a large lobbying and law firm whose clients scale the heights of corporate power – think Monsanto, Amazon, Pfizer, Corrections Corporation of America and many others. He donated to the campaign of former Gov. Rick Perry, who appointed him.

Thomas Fordyce, member of the TBCJ – Fordyce is a “rancher, cow/calf operator and hay producer” who previously served as a director of TDCJ’s Agribusiness, Land and Minerals Department. This office of the Department of Criminal Justice oversees the agricultural work performed by inmates for the state, and maintains production for 24 different crops and “a cow and heifer herd in excess of 10,000 head.” Foodstuffs produced by the TDCJ’s agricultural sector are supplied back to TDCJ to reduce costs, and surplus items can either be sold for revenue or donated; inmates are not compensated for this labor.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice has provided a full list of TCI customers and the goods or services they purchased from September 2014 through March 2016: TCI Customers and Purchases, 9:2014 – 3:2016.

Aaron Cantú writes often at the intersection of political economy and the criminal justice system. He is a former intern at The Nation and lives in Brooklyn. Contact him at aaronmichaelcantu@gmail, @aaron_con_leche or his website, aaronmiguel.contently.com. This story first appeared at http://littlesis.org/news/2016/04/27/whos-behind-unpaid-prison-labor-in-texas/#more-7013.