By Stephen Green
— The Texas Department of Criminal Justice approved a contract to purchase swine nursing tools, which includes air conditioners, according to state documents, a move civil rights activists concerned about the health risks of unair-conditioned cells called “ridiculous.”
The contract with Art’s Way Scientific, a company that builds animal housing, for $750,000 to purchase prefabricated modular farrowing units and nursing pens for their swine production program was approved in June.
The units “create the ideal environment for swine and the people who work with them. Our modular AG buildings are completely climate controlled, easy to clean and sanitize and include the most advanced swine equipment including boar isolation, gestation, farrowing, nursery, finishing, feed study and show pigs,” Dan Palmer, president of Art’s Way Scientific, said in a press release.
The seemingly standard — and quiet – purchase was met with recent criticism from the Texas Civil Rights Project, a group which in part advocates for inmate rights, after it was reported on Grits for Breakfast, a blog that focuses on Texas criminal justice issues. The group says that the deal is “ridiculous” because TDCJ does not have temperature-controlled prison cells, except for the psychiatric, hospital and geriatric wings, yet provides it for pigs.
“Fourteen prisoners have died from heat stroke in recent years,” Scott Medlock, director of TCRP’s Prisoners’ Rights Program, said. “It is outrageous that TDCJ would prioritize the safety of pigs raised for slaughter over the lives of human beings. TDCJ has literally made the decision that protecting its bacon is more important than protecting human lives.”
The contract was awarded through a bidding process and would provide six additional modular buildings for the swine production facilities. According to the TDCJ website, the system already maintains five separate units that breed, farrow and wean pigs, which are readied for process at a feeding location to “(add) value to these market age pigs.”
“Extensive records are kept throughout this operation to measure performance and efficiency, including sow performance and carcass evaluations,” the website reads. “The feeding program includes processed kitchen waste to reduce agency disposal fees. An average of 20,700 head of swine are in inventory.”
TDCJ officials could not be reached for comment by press time on the need for the facilities, but a “Pork Industry Handbook” by Purdue University and authored by agriculture experts at five universities might shed light on the necessity of air-conditioned swine farrowing units.
In a section describing “Critical Design Factors” of farrowing units, the authors said that newborn pigs need dry, clean, and cool temperatures for the first three days of life.
“Ideally, the newborn pig needs a clean, dry, draft-free environment with clean air and a temperature of about 85°F to 90°F the first three days of life,” the authors wrote. “In contrast, the most comfortable temperature for the sow is approximately 60°F to 65°F. In central farrowing units, these two temperature requirements are handled by maintaining a room temperature of about 65°F to 75°F and providing supplemental zone heat for the young pigs.”
In other words, keep the general room temperature cool, but heat the newborn or young pigs. The handbook further says during summer months that additional air should be blown in the units using fans to circulate in fresh air.
Raising livestock isn’t new to TDCJ. The agribusiness department operates and manages more than 141,000 acres in 47 Texas counties with 300 employees more than 6,000 offenders as supplemental labor. This includes not only livestock in the forms of beef cattle, horses and poultry but also 24 different edible crops over more than 4,800 acres and non-edible and feed crops like corn and cotton over more than 36,000 acres.
TDCJ also processes the edible and non-edible livestock and crops for prison use in cafeterias and sells excess produce in farm shops. Inmates are used in these processes as both labor and for training purposes to develop post-correctional skills.
TDCJ works with the Texas Association of Second Harvest Food Banks to provide needy families food as well using excess produce.
The system produces crops and livestock in order to help maintain self-sufficient productivity to reduce contract food supplies, according to TDCJ agribusiness goals.
The state of Texas gave TDCJ an annual budget of $92.7 million to feed inmates for 2012-2013, after denying a $5 million request to increase food allowance. That budget allotment was the same as granted in 2011-2012, which had been reduced by nearly $8 million from the prior year.
It’s unknown if the increase in number of swine farrowing units is part of a larger plan to increase internal food production, which would decrease the net cost to TDCJ and avoid rising food costs.
Title 4, Section 497.023 of the Texas Government Code requires the Texas Corrections Industries, which includes livestock raising and crop growth, exists to provide inmates with employable skills after time served and “reduce department costs by providing products and articles for the department and providing products or articles for sale on a for-profit basis to the public or to agencies of the state or political subdivisions of the state.”
It grants the TDCJ board the ability to decide which programs are most suitable and efficient for the department.
The department also purchases recurring contracts for dining services from ARAMARK for certain correction facilities, sow feed, green beans, sweet potatoes, crop-dusting and chemical processing for TDCJ-produced clothing; as well as one-time contracts with Texas A&M University for veterinary services and the aforementioned farrowing units.
The TDCJ board approves the sale of surplus agricultural products and equipment on the consent agenda at every board meeting. The next board meeting is in Austin on Friday, Aug. 23.