‘Texas doesn’t give a damn about prisoners’ lives’

“I think it’s very stupid, even suicidal on their part, but at the same time, that’s how Texas prison industries operate. They need their employees to keep the prison businesses up and operating. Profits are first, and the health of prisoners and employees are secondary,” Freo Lampkin told Workers World.

Protest at Texas State Capitol in Austin, May 2020.

After 29 years in Texas Department of Criminal Justice prisons, Lampkin knows firsthand that “prisoners are worked until they can’t work no more.”

Lampkin was responding to an email he saw that was sent to supervisors of TDCJ businesses, as well as the Texas Correctional Industries supervisors directing employees to come to work even if they have COVID.

This email was first sent by Bill Lewis, Deputy Director of TDCJ Manufacturing, Agribusiness and Logistics Division, to supervisors of prison industries and at TCI. The email memo stated: “If an employee is fully vaccinated and tests positive on a COVID test, they will be required to wear a mask for 14 days, have their temperature taken twice a day and be non-symptomatic. They will be allowed to work while following the previous guidelines.”

In other words, employees with the COVID virus should go to work, so business can continue. TDCJ is deliberately allowing COVID-positive workers to expose other workers, including the incarcerated workers who work under them.

Prisoner activist Nanon Williams told Workers World, “TDCJ just doesn’t give a damn about us. This email means my life has no value. Texas prisons already have a high rate of COVID, and they just don’t care if we die.

“This email speaks for itself, and it impacts every prison in Texas. It is ignorant. How many prisoners will get sick because of this email, sent as cases of COVID are skyrocketing? How many of us will die? They don’t pay us for our labor. Paroles are continuously denied. Work time or good time is not credited. We are still first-class slaves.” 

Health care workers and medical professionals know that people with COVID should quarantine for 10-14 days to not spread the disease, even if they are asymptomatic. The CDC states, “If you are fully vaccinated and become infected with the Delta variant, you can spread the virus to others. (tinyurl.com/yfhew4sm)

Profiting from unpaid labor

TCI manufactures a wide selection of goods that range from furniture and garments to refurbished computers. TCI operates soap and detergent factories, metal fabrication facilities, sign shops, boot and shoe manufacturing plants, and produces bedding, janitorial supplies, Texas state flags and license plates. Industry programs include tire repair and retreading, renovating school buses, printing services and Braille transcription. All of this is done without paying the workers a penny.

While the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery in 1865, it included one exception: people who are “duly convicted” of a crime. Because of that exception, incarcerated workers can be paid nothing for their labor. Texas is one of only five states — all in the South where workers in correctional facilities are not paid. 

The State Auditor of Texas issued a report in March 2021 about the sale and production of food and fiber by the Agribusiness, Land and Minerals Division of the TDCJ. The auditors found that TDCJ was producing many items at a cost that exceeded the cost of procuring them from outside suppliers.

According to Prison Legal News, “Of special interest to prisoners is the fact that they are forced to labor in the fields without pay on crops of cotton that are unprofitable. So, they ask, what justifies the slavery? Surely not self-sufficiency as prison officials claim. Prison slavery remains an ideological imperative for politicians who yearn for the days of chattel slavery. How do you lose money in a business that employs slaves who are paid nothing for their labor?”

Wrong then, wrong now

Late last year, the City of Houston was ready to approve a contract for the retreading of tires on city vehicles to the lowest bidder — TDCJ. But after objections and discussion, the city selected a different vendor, even though it was a bit more costly.

A Houston Chronicle editorial Dec. 3, 2020, correctly stated, “The move should send a message to Texas officials and to anyone who profits off the work of unpaid incarcerated workers: It’s time to end this practice that carries the shameful tinge of slavery and the remnants of our state’s ugly history of convict leasing. 

“The state is profiting from forced, free labor — just as it did during the racist Jim Crow-era system of convict leasing, in which Black people were locked up, often for violating unjust laws, then leased by the state to companies and made to work without pay in sugarcane fields and on railroads.

“It was wrong then — and it is wrong now. Loss of freedom is already punishment for crime; we should not strip human beings of the dignity that comes from being compensated for work.” 

Today, as COVID cases are rapidly spiking and hospital beds are scarce for workers, not only are incarcerated workers treated as enslaved workers, but they face working conditions that could be a death sentence.

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