Building Bodies Behind Bars

Texas prison manufactures truck bodies and trailers for government use

IT'S not just brooms and license plates anymore.

Using modern machine tools and extensive training programs, vocational programs at state penitentiaries are offering increasingly sophisticated products-including truck bodies and trailers.

Since 1991, inmates at the L C Powledge Unit near Palestine, Texas, have been producing the dump bodies that the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and other government agencies use for highway construction and maintenance throughout the state. Based on the success of that manufacturing operation, the product line has been expanded to include trailers.

The Powledge Unit produces between 150 and 200 dump bodies annually. Production is sold only to government agencies-state, county, and municipal. The same holds true for the trailers that the unit began manufacturing less than a year ago.

The Powledge Unit's principal new trailer product is a beavertail designed to be pulled by a dump truck equipped with pintle hook. The TCI-3333LP is a 33-ft trailer with 33,000-lb capacity. It includes 21-ft load deck, 73" dovetail, and 105" hydraulically powered loading ramp. It is equipped with Hutch suspension, Dexter axles, and Binkley landing gear. Any trailer with axles in excess of 20,000 pounds capacity is equipped with antilock brake systems.

"We place a lot of importance on quality," an inmate says. "When we build a trailer, we police ourselves. If it isn't right, we fix it. When we have it right, we show it to our supervisors.

"We stand by our work. Our warranty is simple-if it breaks, we fix it."

The Powledge Unit began manufacturing trailers in the second half of 1999, shifting the production of campfire grills to another prison to create additional manufacturing space.

Minimum Custody, Maximum Security In nearby Huntsville, the Texas Prison Museum displays a wide range of weapons, tattoo tools, and liquor stills that resourceful inmates have secretly produced with whatever equipment they could find. In high-custody prisons, inmates are kept away from tools that could be used to produce such items. Yet in the Powledge Unit, a maximum security prison a few counties away from the prison museum, inmates have access to a wide range of metal fabrication equipment, including ESAB Silhouette 1000 cutting table with plasma and oxy-fuel torches, American Standard CNC press brake, and Wysong shear.

"Our prisons are maximum security, but the inmates here are considered minimum custody. Those who create problems are transferred to another unit," explains Curtis McKnight, assistant warden. "They are older and more laid back than those in most of the other units. Many are here for the duration."

The average age of the inmates at the Powledge Unit is between 38 and 40. Other prisons have a substantially younger (and more volatile) population. Powledge houses 1,152 inmates, including 859 in the unit and almost 300 living in trusty camps. Both types of inmates work in manufacturing operations.

The entire Powledge Unit houses minimum-custody inmates. This is different from some other units that contain prisoners requiring various levels of supervision.

The unit has approximately 135 who work in the metal fabrication department and 175 who are assigned to that department. Not all 175, however, are on duty at the same time.

Included in the metal fabrication department are painters, hydraulics specialists, electrical workers, metal formers, and inventory control personnel. Other jobs at the prison include laundry, foodservice, agriculture, fence repair, and caring for livestock.

"A lot of offenders come here to attend our welding school," says Jess Slider, plant manager. "We have about 40 welding machines here, and we conduct welding schools all the time. We train welders for work in other units, too."

To be eligible for the metal fabrication department, inmates must have a positive history within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) system. An individual's record while incarcerated in a county jail is not considered-every offender must prove himself to TDCJ officers before he can be trusted to build trailers or truck bodies.

School in Session Placement of new arrivals at the Powledge Unit is the responsibility of the classification office. Inmates are classified not by the severity of their crime, but according to the behavior they have shown since arriving at TDCJ.

Education plays a key role at the Powledge Unit. Inside the walls, inmates are eligible to take college courses or receive a high school education from the Windham school district, the TDCJ's own educational system.

"Every offender who comes in here without a high school education will have to attend class," says Sylvia Clay, principal at the Powledge Unit. "They will get a diploma if they don't have one."

The Texas legislature created the Windham School District to operate within TDCJ. The district and its teachers are required to meet the same standards as any other public school district in the state. Its faculty at the Powledge Unit includes seven academic teachers, five vocational instructors, two college instructors, and a specialist in helping inmates make the transition back into the outside world.

The district offers a wide range of courses, from special education through college level. They include high school and college-level welding classes.

"If the offender has a GED, he is eligible for our college-level welding classes," Clay says. "Only our college-level welders are allowed to build trailers."

The educational program at the Powledge Unit addresses academic, vocational, and emotional needs. One course is designed to prepare those who are about to be released, explaining how the world has changed during the time he has been incarcerated. Others offer parenting skills or anger management and self control. "Without changing their thinking, all you have is an offender who can weld," Clay says.

Determine Needs Each inmate is assessed to determine what his needs are. Clay estimates that most cannot read beyond the sixth-grade level. Of the 1,152 inmates at the Powledge Unit, 120 do not have a high school diploma. Even those with high school diplomas have difficulty reading.

"If the offender lacks an education, he goes to school," Clay says. "If he lacks a job, he gets vocational training. And if he has a drug or alcohol problem, he gets treatment. We really can change thinking and behavior. That's really important, because sooner or later most of these offenders will move back into society-maybe next door to you or me."

The Powledge Unit is part of the Industrial Division of TDCJ. The division has been in operation since 1963 after the Texas legislature authorized TDCJ to sell prison-made goods to all tax-supported agencies and political subdivisions. Today it is known as Texas Correctional Industries (TCI).

TCI consists of industry headquarters and four divisions that operate 42 factories and facilities. The locations produce a wide range of goods and services for governmental entities. The products include mattresses, shoes, clothing, detergents, furniture, textiles, and steel products. Each of the products is required to meet specifications established and regulated by the state's General Services Commission. And like any manufacturer of trailers or commercial trucks, the Powledge Unit must comply with federal motor vehicle safety standards.

The objectives of TCI include reducing the rate of recidivism, improving job skills, and reducing costs to the state.

At the Powledge Unit, much of the work of achieving those objectives takes place in the metal fabrication area. There inmates work in six stalls that are designated for dump body assembly, two for subassemblies, and four for trailer production.

"We offer a hand-built, quality trailer," says an inmate in the fabrication department. "The program here is something that benefits everybody. We aren't trying to produce 100 trailers a day. Instead, we are able to really give the customer exactly what he wants, built the way he wants it. Plus, this program helps inmates learn job skills. Some of us don't know anything except how to do time. If we can learn how to be productive when we are here, we have a better chance of leaving here and never coming back." o

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