Working Six to Five

By Mike Powers

With the exception of a few short months after surgeries and the time I spent on the Diboll Unit, I’ve always been assigned a job. Technically, this is necessary if the TDCJ is going to fulfill the law of the land, because it is legislated that every TDCJ inmate will have a job. The duty of this law makes for some comically creative paperwork as you will often see 70-plus year-olds, walking with the aid of canes, crutches and walkers, assigned to a “medical squad”, TDCJ code for “unemployed”, which is legally not permissible. But there I go chasing rabbits again.

 When I arrived on this unit, I had over eleven years of work experience in the laundry. Part of the intake process at a new unit involves the attendance of a “Unit Classification Committee” where several staffers will interview the inmate to determine things like his mental health, disposition to behave and comply with the unit’s policies (particularly if that’s been a problem at past housing assignments), and, of course, his new job. So, after describing my extensive experience in laundry, my vocational training as an electrician, and my brief forray into prison maintenance, the warden looked at the computer, scratched her chin, and said, “I’m going to assign you to the garment factory.” Perfect logic, as always.

 Our particular garment factory makes three items: long-sleeve uniform gray shirts for correctional officers; blue short-sleeve polo shirts for correctional officers; and all-white t-shirts which will be sold to TDCJ offenders and, perhaps, other incarcerated individuals in jurisdictions that might have contracts with the TDCJ. To give you an idea of the scale of our operation, I believe one of the supervisors said that the Hightower factory made 60,000 t-shirts last year. Each one of these shirts was sold for almost $7.00. That’s $420,000. Just in tees. Not bad when your only expenses are cloth, thread and machine oil.

 If I recall correctly from my laundry days, each new officer is given two gray shirts, and they are replaced, free, each year. The polos must be bought on the officers’ own dimes. I have no notion of how much they charge for those. Nor do I know how much an extra gray shirt would cost them, but I believe the supervisor said they made over 80,000 grays last year and 50,000 polos.

 I was trained by showing some safety/policy videos and turned over to an inmate section manager (not his title, just his function- he’s called a “runner”, you know, cause he runs things) to be shown what to do. The runner in turn took me to another minion like myself who showed me how to do the work I was assigned, and away I went. My job description entails using a surger sewing machine (two needles, five threads, self-cutting) to put together the front and back of the polo shirts at the shoulder seam. While I can’t imagine having to do this day in and day out for a living, I really enjoy the work. It passes my time and occupies enough of my intelligence to be engaging, but in no way stressful.

 Now, after the warden gave me this job, I worked eight full work days. At this factory, what that means is that I worked my full shift, 6 AM to 5 PM with an hour lunch break, for four days the first week and four days the second week. It seems the four-day work week is standard fare for most Texas Correctional Industries facilities. Must be nice, right?

 Beginning the third week, my program classes began to interfere with three-of the four mornings I was to work. Then, on the fifth week, I was moved to the therapeutic community dorm. This dorm requires attendance at afternoon “TC” groups. So, that took away the afternoon of every factory workday. As far as I can figure out, I’m now responsible for going to work one morning a week. Ain’t life grand?

 If I’m giving the false impression that I’m pleased with such lacsidaisical expectations of my work ethic, you are mistaken. The whole point in me bringing up my schedule and telling you about it is to demonstrate the dog and pony show character of so many things surrounding the TDCJ and its shell company, the Texas Correctional Industries program. May I suggest an alternative? Let’s say Hanes or Fruit of the Loom was to build a factory on the grounds of this unit. The company, in exchange for the opportunity to benefit from this factory’s output, would agree to provide meaningful training to inmates it employed. It would further agree to pay the inmates minimum wage. Finally, it would negotiate a fair and reasonable contract to make sure TDCJ kept getting its grays, polos and tees. Moreover, unlike TCI, this free-world company would exercise realistic standards for job performance, production, and quality, something TCI nearly universally lacks. In other words, inmate tees would no longer fall apart after the first wearing. The necks might actually fit around your head. Maybe two blue polos would actually fit the same way. You know, the little stuff.

 As it is right now, only the most egregious flaws are given any attention at repair. Any given day, you’re likely to find less than half of the inmates in the factory actually doing a job of any kind. Most just sit around and rap (not talk-rap, complete with table pounding for bass) or stare off into the cobwebs in the ceiling.

 In addition to meaningful work, the treatment community could be moved to the evenings. This would much more closely simulate the kind of schedule an ex-con will be facing when he hits the streets of freedom, and it will prepare him to put in full days at work and free-world treatment or continuing education. In other words, it might...dare I say it? Rehabilitate him. Can’t have that now, can we?

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez