Mexico touts prison work as cost cutter

Officials: inmate goods sold in U.S.

BY JULIE WATSON Seattle Times Dec. 4, 2002

CIUDAD VICTORIA, Mexico Prison officials in northern Mexico say their inmates are manufacturing furniture bound for Texas despite U.S. laws that ban the importation of goods made with prison labor.
    And they'd like to contract with more U.S. companies to produce all kinds of goods. One official said prison shops would even label their products to hide their origin.
    Prison officials in Mexico's northern states are pointing to inmate workshops as a way to stem the loss of business as foreign owned assembly plants abandon the border zone in search of cheaper labor in Asia. Convicts already do work for Mexican companies.
    But prison labor is strongly criticized around the globe on the grounds it undercuts unions, steals jobs from law abiding workers and poses risks of human rights abuses. Many countries, like the United States, bar imports of products made by prisoners.
    The prison director for Tamaulipas state, Manuel del Riego, said Clint Hough of Austin, Texas, is the first foreign businessman to accept the state's offer of its inmates' services. Del Riego said Hough has been buying furniture made by prisoners for more than a year.
    Inmates at the Ciudad Victoria prison said Hough ordered chairs for a Texas restaurant chain as well as dining room furniture.

    Hough, interviewed at the prison, would not confirm that he takes the furniture across the border. "That I would really rather not discuss because I'm afraid U.S. Customs would ruin it," he said.
    Wiping sweat from his brow with a towel, Hough later denied ordering furniture from the prison at all and said he merely teaches prisoners design and finishing techniques.
    Del Riego said 150 foreign companies many in the United States had expressed interest in setting up production lines at the 11 prisons in Tamaulipas.
    On average, Mexican inmates earn the minimum wage of 45 pesos a day ($4.50), half what free workers along the border make. Companies hiring prison labor also save on health insurance, retirement and other benefits.
    Inmates in neighboring Nuevo Leon state now work solely for Mexican companies making such things as T shirts and charcoal. "But we're open to foreign companies and would be happy to have one," said Ediberto Gutierrez, a prison administrator.
    Baja California Norte officials say they are in talks with the Tijuana trade association that represents foreign owned assembly-for export plants, known as maquiladoras or maquilas for short.
    The border states have plunged into recession with the exodus of maquilas, which had fueled an economic boom in the region since the government in the 1960s allowed mostly U.S. owned companies to take advantage of Mexico's cheap labor.
    "I guess people are going to have to commit a crime to get a job, because there are hardly any jobs left in Mexico," said Raul Lescas, a researcher at Mexico's Labor University in Mexico City.

    While Mexico permits prisons to produce for companies, U.S. law bars the importation of convict made goods "no matter what the circumstances," said Paula Keicer of the U.S. Customs Service in Washington.
    Keicer said officials were not aware of prison made furniture being imported across the Texas border. She said records of imports are confidential and could not discuss whether Hough was bringing furniture into Texas.
    Inmates at the Ciudad Victoria prison said Hough hired them to make 60 straight back hardwood chairs for a Corpus Christi barbecue chain and three dining-­room sets.
    Covered in sawdust, Serafin Herndndez Jr., a convicted drug smuggler who oversees the operation, said Hough promised up to $1,000 for that order, to be split among the 10 prisoners who built the furniture.
    "He calls me each week and asks how things are going or tells me, 'I need two more chairs, a bedroom Set,' and we get everything ready for when his trailer comes," said Herndndez, 32.
    A dozen prisoners wielded buzz saws, hammers and power drills in a yard surrounded by towering rock walls topped with razor wire. Heavily armed guards watched from a tower as the burly men transformed mesquite and pine into rocking chairs, dining-room tables and benches.
    Ovidio Silva, 38, who was convicted of killing a man while running drugs, said he earns $20 a week, most of which he sends to his family. "This really changed me," said Silva, whose biceps are covered with tattoos of bikini clad women.
"People tell me I even walk differently now  like an educated man."
Silva said he wants to open a furniture business when he finishes his 11 year sentence this month.