Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Sheriffs' use of jail labor ripe for statewide investigation, legislative fix

A pair of recent headlines make me think a statewide audit could be in order regarding how Texas county jails use inmate labor.

First, in my hometown of Tyler, Lt. Gary Lile, a former Winnsboro police chief and administrator at the Smith County Jail's low-risk facility, apparently committed suicide after the Texas Rangers launched an investigation into allegations that deputies used inmate labor for personal gain, including gathering scrap metal for resale. Three other deputies may still face felony charges, and more deputies may be implicated, the Tyler Morning Telegraph has reported.

Then over the weekend, the Austin Statesman ran a feature providing details of the Bastrop County Sheriff's final conviction, in this case for turning a blind eye toward gambling operations and "using county inmates and materials to operate his own custom barbecue pit building business." Prosecutors claim the sheriff and a county commissioner "stole as much as $250,000 in money and goods while in office."

County jail trusties all over the state perform work both inside the jail and outside it, mowing lawns, cleaning up roadsides or cemeteries, etc., but nobody's supposed to be using them for personal gain.

I contacted Adan Munoz, head of the the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, to ask about the issue, and he confirmed that TCJS does not track how jails use inmate labor as part of their inspection process. Indeed, there's no agency with specific jurisdiction over such abuses except local county officials, he said, but in general he thinks they have strong incentives to behave ethically. (I wish I shared his optimism about county level oversight - in Bastrop the Sheriff was in cahoots with a county commissioner; that meant foxes were watching the henhouse, allowing the situation to go on for years.)

Munoz declared he does not believe misuse of inmate labor is a statewide problem, and thought that local officials generally provide adequate oversight. He admitted, though, having two similar incidents in the press recently puts the issue more than usual on the front burner.

Munoz agreed that it would improve accountability if jails kept logs of when and how inmate labor is used, and would give TCJS something to check during inspections to provide some external oversight. That's not the law now, though, so Texas jails keep no such logs or other documentation, making it virtually impossible to track how trusty labor is being used.

Requiring such logs might be a good reform for the Lege to consider adding to state jail standards when they get back to Austin next year, but Sheriffs who want to prevent similar problems at their own jails should preemptively create them themselves.

In the meantime, though, either the Comptroller, the state auditor, the US Justice Department, or somebody with enough resources to do the job right needs to investigate whether other Texas Sheriff's departments have misused inmate labor for personal gain.


Anonymous said...

The one that killed himself must have had some serious mental health issues. There ain't no job and no woman worth off'in yourself for.

Coalition of Smith County Citizens in Favor of Deputies Using Inmates for Personal Gain.

Anonymous said...

Accountability is fairly straightforward. Anyone who abets the escape of a prisoner gets sent to prison -- even if he returns the escapee at the end of the day. Those convicted should of course be put in with the general population.

Abuse your position, assume the position, it's that simple.

Anonymous said...

"Munoz declared he does not believe misuse of inmate labor is a statewide problem"

Texas is the only state in the union that has legal institutional slavery. Prisoners are routinely "coerced" to work 10 hour days at prison "jobs", many of which are "sub hired" to large corps(example Texas Instrumments) Inmates are paid NOTHING. Conditions are poor and frequently unhealthy. With parole rules currently, there is no "good time" off for working. Supposedly, the profits from said labor go towards the care and housing of the prisoners. Anyone with experience at TDCJ will clear up that misinformation. There are huge profits being made from unpaid(often minority) workers. Sadly, even the 13th Amendment states that prisoners can be forced to work without pay. However, the US signed international conventions that ban slavery(international law trumps national law)Texas didn't get the memo. I don't think these men did anything the state of Texas hasn't been doing for a long time.

Anonymous said...

Anon 09:31, I can agree that slavery has not been abolished...but not only has it not been abolished in Texas, it remains in effect throughout the Union, courtesy of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Take a closer look at it, and you find that slavery is indeed reserved as a punishment:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
- (Emphasis mine - k.) argument that forced labor is slavery. But it's fallen out of fashion to describe it for what it is.

Anonymous said...

Needless to say, when you tie this in with the DrugWar's traditional targets being people of color, particularly the descendants of former slaves, one has to wonder whether the Prison/Industrial complex is not a form of institutionalized slavery given a 21st century coat of paint.

Anonymous said...

hmmm, Munoz a former commander of a drug task force, a former sheriif, and the guy who later funded the task forces for Gov. Ann. Not the best guy to comment on what a sheriff should do...