The Indentured Servitude Of TX Prisoners: No Pay for Mandated Work

You'll be hard pressed to find anyone who says prison life is easy. And yet some of the biggest challenges facing Texas prisoners are the most mundane.

Last month the Third Court of Appeals in Austin ruled against a prisoner in a case concerning his inmate account. Convicted of a violent crime, the appellant prisoner was serving a 99-year sentence. He was appealing the withdrawal of funds from his inmate account. The seized funds were being used to satisfy court costs and fees from his criminal case.

Technically, the court disposed of the case on jurisdictional grounds. The inmate should not have filed an appeal. Rather, he should have filed a motion to modify or rescind the order to withdraw the funds.  

It begs the broader question: how do an inmate's finances work?

They are utterly controlled by the state. A Texas inmate's finances are governed by Texas Government Code §501.014. Section 501.014(e) – the provision in the above case – was enacted "to provide a simplified way to withdraw funds from an offender's Inmate Trust Account (their commissary account) to pay for the expenses listed in the statute. These expenses include child support, health care costs, court costs, fees, fines and restitution."

What if an inmate doesn't have enough money in his trust or commissary account to cover such costs? Immediately below, Section 501.014(f) addresses that contingency, stating that Texas can put a hold on an inmate's commissary account to cover arrears.

How does money land in an inmate's trust or commissary account in the first place? Do they work for it?

No. Like other states, Texas requires its inmates to work daily during their incarceration. Inmates in federal prisons are also required to work daily during their incarceration. But nmates in federal prison are compensated for their labor. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, inmates in federal prisons earn between 12 cents and 40 cents per hour for their labor.  Inmates in federal prisons working as part of a regimen of job training receive between 23 cents and $1.15 for their labor.  

Unlike other states and unlike the federal prison system, inmates in Texas prisons do not make an hourly wage or receive other compensation for the mandatory work they perform behind bars. They rely on other sources for income.  

According to the Offender Orientation Handbook published by the TDCJ:

"Offenders are required to surrender all money they have in their possession to officials at the receiving location. The offender will be given a receipt showing money relinquished. Money found on an offender after the first day of confinement will be confiscated as contraband and the offender will be charged with a disciplinary violation."  

An inmate's money goes into his or her trust or commissary account. They use this account subject to rules promulgated by the TDCJ limiting how much they can spend ($75.00 every two weeks, all the way down to $20.00 every two weeks depending on the offender's classification ). An inmate must rely on outside sources to fund his or her trust account. Anyone wishing to fund an inmate's trust account may do so through money orders or cashier's checks, monthly checking account debits, various services provided by Western Union, ACE, America's Cash Express, and JPay, with service charges ranging from $1.95 to $9.95 per transaction.  

Does an inmate need money in his or her trust account? While the TDCJ states that an inmate's essentials are covered, there are still some very real costs an inmate will likely bear. For instance, an inmate wishing to work in a craft program in prison must supply the start up costs, which can range from $25.00 to $100.00.  Additionally, in some instances, inmates seeking medical care will be charged a co-pay of $3.00 for their care. The Orientation Handbook states that "Access to health services will be provided regardless of the offenders' ability to pay this fee." It is unclear if unreimbursed co-pays will be debited from an inmate's trust account once that account is once again funded.  

It is not clear if Texas' choice to mandate prison labor without compensation is one of moral judgment or economic necessity.  However, the Prison Policy Initiative does set out the cost of producing comparable goods with compensated labor contrasted with uncompensated labor. The differences are striking.  Notably, other sources have indicated that furniture such as that in the state capitol and other state offices is made by Texas prisoners.

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