Inmate labor: Cost-effective, opportunity to learn trades

TYLER (TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH) - "Bennie," wearing a grey Smith County trusty jumpsuit, pauses and leans against a ladder inside the future Precinct Constable 1 office.

The building smells of fresh paint, and Facility Services workers and trusties are enjoying the newly installed air conditioning as they finish renovating the space.

Bennie has worked 40 hours a week on the building, as he serves time for nonpayment of child support. He's not happy to be in jail, but he's happy to be out of his cell and busy.


"They treat me like I work here," he said. "I'm thankful to be here."

Bennie said time passes slowly during idle moments. Frustrations build. Time ticks by when television and domino games occupy it. With work comes calm, he said, and an opportunity to learn a trade.

He is one of about 100 male and female trusties the county has working on tasks ranging from cooking meals and laundry for about 700 fellow county jail inmates to patching roads and moving furniture. State law allows counties to utilize inmate laborers for up to 48 hours a week.


Former Sheriff J.B. Smith began the county's inmate labor program in 1978, at a time when few counties utilized prisoners.

Since that time, inmates have logged tens of thousands of man-hours working for community non-profits, he said. Throughout the decades, Smith said inmates have helped complete major projects and minor tasks.

They've renovated county buildings, painted churches, picked up roadside trash, moved boxes of documents for county staff and worked in the city's public rose garden.

Inmate work details kept short-staffed departments above water, Smith said.

Steve Christian, Facilities Services director, said trusties are valuable assets for the community and county.

Two to three inmates with varying skills are assigned to assist Christian's three-man crew daily. He estimated inmate labor cut the remodel project for the constable office in half.

Trusties are asked what work they did on the outside, he said, and then given an opportunity to volunteer to do the same job under supervision while in jail.

"They augment our workforce," he said. "We have carpenters, electricians, painters — you name it. The bottom line is, we couldn't do construction without them."

County Judge Joel Baker said inmate labor contributes valuable services for the county and community. Inmates have worked on most all the county's renovation projects, including the new sheriff's office and courthouse improvements.

Baker said those projects would not have been completed within budgets and on schedule, if not for inmate labor. He estimated inmates' work had saved the county at least $500,000 in labor costs since he joined the court in 2006.

"In general, people think that is what they should be doing instead of sitting in a room taking up space," he said.

Brandon Wood, executive director for the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which oversees county jails and inmate treatment, agreed that community residents expect public works labor to be part of inmate rehabilitation.

Wood said most counties across the state now utilize inmate labor on public works projects.

But the use of inmates for labor for personal gain has happened, Wood acknowledged.

In 2008, a Bastrop County sheriff received 90 days in jail, fines and 10 years' probation, and a county commissioner was fined and received community service, for schemes involving the use of inmate labor.

Wood said the commission investigates when notified of possible misuses.

Sheriff Larry Smith's main concern is minimizing public safety concerns while maximizing work opportunities.

Lt. Tony Dana, who oversees jail operations at the Low/Medium Risk Unit, screens new inmates' records to determine if they qualify for trusty status. Most must involve misdemeanor cases, child support nonpayment and other nonviolent crimes.

Trusties are divided into three separate classes based on their security risk level — "green suits," "bumble bees" and "grey suits" — from higher to lower.

Inmates wearing green suits never leave the jail, Dana said. They typically do custodial chores inside. Bumble bees, named after their classic black and white striped jumpsuit, can be seen along roadsides assisting Road and Bridge crews but always are under direct supervision, he said.

Inmates wearing grey suits require supervision but are given a smidgen more liberty, Dana said.

"They're all prisoners," he said. "I tell my deputies to always remain vigilant because you never know."

Dana has been with the department for more than 20 years and remembers a few trusty "walk offs," which are considered felony escapes.

But in the day-to-day work, Dana said trusties are on a short, "zero-tolerance" leash, with regard to discipline problems. The privilege is enough to keep most in line, he said.

Many Smith County departments, including Christian's, have staff certified as jailers, so they can monitor trusties without deputies.

"They're good guys," he said. "Most of them could be me or you, but at some point they took a left when we took a right."

Bennie, a truck driver by trade, said he had learned skills during his months on Christian's crew. He knows he'll be further behind on child support payments when he gets out and believes the work he has done could lead to more job opportunities.

"You can walk up on a construction site and go to work if you know what you're doing," he said. "It's going to help."


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