What are these inmates learning?

February 14, 2008 8:39:50 PM PST
The sheriff's office calls it inmate education, but some Houston area ministers call what we've uncovered evidence of a plantation mentality under the watch of Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas.It's not unusual for jail inmates to do work for the state to save taxpayers money. Everyone's heard of them making license plates, but check out the sweet deal some folks are getting from inmate labor that you can't get.

In the Shawshank Redemption, it wasn't really about public service, it was about working for the man.

In Harris County's jail, they work in the name of education. A way for Harris County Jail inmates to learn a trade so once their time behind bars is over, maybe they won't come back.

"I want these guys to go out in free world and get a second chance," said HCC instructor Gerardo Gomez.

From welding, to shoe repair, to rebuilding cars, the inmates are taught their trade by Houston Community College instructors.

And it's all done behind the secure fence of the Harris County Sheriff's Office building on Crites Street.

Instructor Randy Arnold teaches inmates to make cabinets.

"A general house of cabinets would cost you at a trim carpenter would probably cost you seven or eight thousand dollars," said Arnold.

But get the inmates to build them and he says it is half price.

The inmates were proud to show off a miniature barbeque pit they welded together.

You can cook a whole lot more in one of the custom made smokers being made by inmates. The only charge is the cost of the material. The labor is free.

I asked how much you save by having a barbeque pit built by the inmates.

"About 40%," said HCC instructor Billy Smith.

But you can't get this sweet deal. It's for a select group of customers -- employees of the sheriff's department and a few from the community college system and other "approved groups or individuals."

The sheriff saved money on a barbeque pit, shoe repair and others have saved on cabinets and car repair. The director of the inmate center had 33 jobs done for him. He had his shoes shined twice ? that's education.

Even instructors admit it helps to have special friends to get this special deal.

"We use sheriff's department people or a friend of someone who works for the college or sheriff's department," Arnold said.

The records we've obtained show one of the biggest customers is Captain Jim Albers. Until recently he ran the inmate programs for the sheriff's office. Look at the repair work he's gotten done by the inmates in his custody, 46 separate repairs on at least ten different cars. At least some registered to the Albers family.

We tried to buy a barbeque pit but the program director said no.

"You've got to get better friends," Gomez said.

The records obtained by 13 Undercover show work requested by Charlie Bertani. It says on this government record he's an employee of the county sheriff's office. He's not. He was a reserve deputy and runs a bingo hall on 1960 and he's one of Sheriff Tommy Thomas' biggest political contributors. The Bertani family gave Thomas more than $15,400 in two years.

"That's nothing but slavery," said Rev. F. N. Williams of Ministers Against Crime. "Slavery, plantation mentality, that's what they are practicing."

"Nobody is calling their hand," said Rev. Robert Jefferson of Ministers Against Crime. "Nobody saying nothing to them, they are just running free."

But is all this free inmate labor legal?

The state gift law says "a public servant in an agency having custody of prisoners commits an offense if he solicits, accepts, or agrees to accept any benefit from a person the public servant knows to be in his custody or the custody of his agency."

"I think it's totally wrong," said Rev. Jefferson. "You can use the whole thing, to me we go back to slavery."

The sheriff won't talk to us on camera, but has asked the county attorney's office to make sure what they've been doing is legal. But it's not just inmate labor were investigating, it's the sheriff's use of inmate instructors out at his personal ranch. We're heading to the country Thursday night at 10pm.

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