Let’s please find more opportunities to avoid using unpaid prison labor

More like this, in other words.

CM Abbie Kamin

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.

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.

CM Carolyn Evans-Shabazz

Kamin and Evans-Shabazz said the change was necessary to ensure the city does not funnel money into what they described as an amoral 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.”


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.”

There’s a lot of history and other backstory to this that I skipped over in the article, so go read the whole thing. Suffice it to say that people – all people, prisoners included – should be paid a fair wage for their labor. If you must, consider that a firm like Southern Tire Mart was unable to compete with the sub-minimum wages that the TDCJ was able to get by with, until CMs Kamin and Evans-Shabazz stepped in and altered the calculus. They’re now seeking to get a bill passed in the Lege that would mandate pay standards for prisoners, which Reps. Ron Reynolds and Alma Allen will carry and which I fully support. Sorry, but there’s no moral argument for taking advantage of the artificially cheap labor of an involuntary workforce. I’m happy for the city of Houston to show some leadership on this, and I hope other cities and counties will take notice.

Related Posts:

This entry was posted in Local politics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Let’s please find more opportunities to avoid using unpaid prison labor

  1. C.L. says:

    @Kuff…. We’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one. TDCJ inmates are being provided free room and board, meals, exercise equipment, health care, access to reading material, internet access, television programming, etc., while incarcerated. Cry me a river if they have some extraneous duties that aren’t paying them a Federal minimum wage while they sit in there for crimes committed.

    If I was in there and was being ‘asked’ to retread tires, I’d consider that some OJT for when I get out.

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    So C.L. has been outed as a racist. Welcome to the club, C.L. We have cookies!

    Having said that, I think I have a solution that the council members can agree to…..only use the white male inmates to work for no pay retreading tires. That way no ‘people of color’ are being used as ‘slave labor.’

    Problem. Solved. Happy to help.

  3. C.L. says:

    Bill, I’m fairly certain there are no clubs both you and I are a member of.

  4. Bill Daniels says:

    Dare to dream, C.L. We’re both in the same club, the people hated by leftists club. If you and I were outdoor dining at adjacent tables and a blm/antifa mob showed up, guess what? You are going to be harangued and assaulted just like I would be. You think your protestations of, “But I am on your side!” will have any impact?

    Here’s a funny video that perfectly exemplifies the way the left looks at you:


    So yeah, we’re in the same club…..it’s just that you’re in the kneeler’s circle, you are self loathing, so you think you deserve the abuse.

  5. Mainstream says:

    Maybe a better approach would be to pay minimum wage so the prison is not unfairly competing with private business, but also require the funds to at first go to pay restitution for victims of their crimes, before going to the personal use of the criminals.

  6. C.L. says:

    @Bill…. uh huh.

  7. C.L. says:

    @Mainstream…. I like that idea !

Comments are closed.