Houston rebid a contract to avoid using unpaid prison labor. Now, it hopes the state will make a change too.By Dylan McGuinness, Staff writer 11/24/20
As Houston officials hashed out the budget last spring, City Council members Abbie Kamin and Carolyn Evans-Shabazz quietly asked to send a routine contract back to the Turner administration.
© Steve Gonzales, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer
The $4.2 million deal was needed to replace tire treading on the city’s commercial trucks and tractor-trailers. The city was about to award the contract on May 12 to the lowest bidder, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which offered to complete the work for some $750,000 less than the only private bidder, Southern Tire Mart.
The state agency was able to offer a lower price in part because it does not pay its workers. The agency relies on the labor of prisoners, who do not earn wages when they work in Texas, one of a few states that do not pay workers in correctional facilities.
At the council members’ request, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration put out a new request for bids, this time including language that required compensation for workers. Three private vendors applied — TDCJ did not — and on Oct. 27 the city selected Southern Tire Mart for the $4.6 million contract.
Kamin and Evans-Shabazz said the change was necessary to ensure the city does not funnel money into what they described as an immoral and unjust system. They hope the city will continue to bypass the state agency in future contracts while they lobby state legislators to address the pay issue.
“Our hope is that we can have a citywide policy,” said Kamin, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee. “The important thing out of this example is that sometimes it’s the little things that may not be really exciting, but that can have a profound change on the systemic and lingering effects of racial discrimination in our criminal justice system.”
Evans-Shabazz, like other critics of the state’s no-pay practice, likened such prison labor to slavery. If they earned wages, the workers could use that money for phone calls or commissary items, she said.TDCJ “told me they use the money for their employees. Well, that just doesn’t sit well with me and it seems more like ‘slave labor,’” Evans-Shabazz said. “Being an African American, that certainly doesn’t sit well with me. … I just think that’s dehumanizing.”
The debate over the failure to pay prisoners for work comes more than a century after public outrage prompted Texas to abandon its notorious convict-leasing system.
The state generated revenue by leasing out convicts to local plantation owners and industrialists, who in turn benefited from cheap labor. Dubbed “slavery by another name,” convict leasing targeted Black men, at times through questionable charges and harsh sentences. Concerns about that practice led the state to take over supervision of convict labor.
The city of Houston has used the prison system for past contracts. It paid Texas Correctional Industries, a division of TDCJ, for $3.9 million in tire treadings after awarding it a 2013 contract that expired this year. The city also tapped TCI for a $93,000 contract to buy Houston Fire Department beds in 2015, according to the city controller’s contract database.
Turner declined to comment for this article. However, Kamin and Evans-Shabazz said he was receptive to their argument.
TDCJ, which declined comment on the contract, says on its website that the work programs, which reap profits for the agency, provide prisoners “marketable job skills, help reduce recidivism and reduce department cost.” In 2017, the agency reported that more than 120,000 prisoners were working five days a week in agriculture, industry, maintenance, food service, laundry and other industries.
The freshman council members met with TDCJ representatives before the new bid was released and said they came away unimpressed. For one, Kamin said, the certificate that prisoners receive has the TDCJ logo on it, which they said is far less marketable in applying for jobs than one provided by an independent organization. The agency also could not furnish data on whether the state’s programs help inmates land jobs after their sentences, she said.
Kamin also pointed out that the prisoners’ work is not always voluntary. Prisoners must perform some type of work as part of their sentences, and while they could apply to do something else, it is possible they can be assigned to tire treading if others slots are full, according to the agency. The unit where the tire treading is done — the Darrington Unit, named after a slave-holder, according to the Marshall Project — also is not air-conditioned.
“The crux of the matter is, Texas needs to catch up,” Evans-Shabazz said. “We’re not even talking about a lot, just something that they could put on their books.”
Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit and nonpartisan research institute, said work is relatively fundamental in prisons across the country. The group estimates half of all prisoners have a job of some kind. Much of that work involves prison operations, from janitorial duties to laundry.
It’s also common for prisoners to do work for state agencies, but Texas is among several states that do not pay prisoners for such work, Bertram said. Prisoners in the El Paso County Jail were recently enlisted to transport the bodies of people killed by COVID-19. They refused to work for free and are being paid $2 an hour, according to the Texas Tribune.
Even in states that do pay, Bertram said, the wages often are not enough to cover phone calls, commissary items, and costly payments for health care. Job-training benefits often are also lacking, she said.
“When you look at the jobs people are getting offered and you think, ‘Does any job like that exist on the outside?’ you start to think this training might not amount to anything,” Bertram said. “It’s never been a better time to realize that people who are incarcerated are very much part of the economy and deserve to be supported.”
The council members are seeking statewide changes, too.
Evans-Shabazz reached out to state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, about seeking a legislative solution. Reynolds said he and state Rep. Alma Allen, D-Houston, are drafting a bill to set pay standards for prisoners and plan to file it before the session begins in January.
A similar bill, which would have set a minimum pay of $1 per day for prison workers, didn’t make it out of a committee. Reynolds said he hopes their bill will have more success next year, given the momentum for criminal justice reform in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis police custody last May.
“The country has taken a shift. People are looking at criminal justice reform and discussions in a bipartisan way,” Reynolds said. “I think this is certainly a major reform we can get behind.”