Wednesday, March 31, 2021

For cruelty's sake: Texas prisons lose money every year to keep prisoners picking cotton, other field crops

Texas ended "convict leasing" - essentially hiring out prisoners as slave labor - just more than a century ago, but the prison system's Agricultural Division never really stopped so much as they brought the practice in house.

TDCJ officials have testified under oath that having prisoners pick cotton in the summer heat is "essential" to the agency's operations. But we learned recently the agency is actually paying for the privilege of doing so. It'd be cheaper to buy it on the open market.

Over the last five years, according to a recently released state audit, the agency lost money every year on cotton and other non-edible field crops, spending $6.83 million more over five years than they'd have paid to simply purchase the products.

At least one year, losses had been attributed to Hurricane Harvey. But it turns out, it's an ongoing problem in the same way the agency's food canning operation has been losing money.

Overall, 46% of products produced by TDCJ would have cost less if purchased on the open market.

It's worth mentioning, Texas is one of only three states where prisoners are paid nothing for their work, so we're essentially saying TDCJ can't turn a profit on these operations using slave labor.

If you can't make a profit with no labor costs, maybe you're not very good at business, or at least are in the wrong one. Perhaps the field-crop program just isn't such a great idea? 

By contrast, the agency's beef, pork and livestock programs earn significant profits, and the value of edible crops was much lower but at least greater than the cost of growing them.

Even so, profit shouldn't be the biggest concern and arguably prioritizing it is a holdover from the convict-leasing era. A few years ago, Ohio closed all its prison farms on the grounds that it made no sense to train prisoners for agricultural jobs when that's not the type of work most enter upon release.

Certainly that's true in Texas, too. Texas prisons aren't operating their Ag program because that's the best way to prepare prisoners for reentry. They're operating it out of inertia, because they've always done so, whether it makes penological, much less financial sense, or not. And maybe also, just for cruelty's sake.

BONUS: Check out [Cotton Picking Time in] Tulia, TX, a tune about TDCJ field workers written by my pal Jeff Frazier back in the day and sung by the great Malford Milligan.


rozmataz said...


Gadfly said...

Sadly, the 13th Amendment was miswritten to allow prisoners to be paid nothing.

Sergeant Pepper said...

Punish punish punish, we won't worry about rehabilitation. We need them back inside.

Anonymous said...

An example of why the state legislature needs to pass the Outside Oversight of TDCJ bill that has been filed. Don’t let this bill languish.