Courts & Crime

A prison work program that just sounds like Texas

FORT WORTH — Being raised by criminals isn't necessarily a bad thing — if you're a cow or bull.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has a good-looking herd of black baldy cattle on display at the annual Fort Worth Stock Show, the third time that Texas' prison system has made an appearance at the exhibition.

The cattle — 12 pregnant heifers and their calves — were cared for by inmates and will be auctioned off Sunday morning during the Pen of Ten sale (the entire pen of cattle will be sold together to one buyer).

And no, the inmates aren’t here.

But the sale proceeds will help offset the cost of feeding them.

"This is a cost-effective method to put money back into the food service system of the state," said Mack Currie, an agricultural program specialist with the department. "The benefit of the Fort Worth Stock Show is to show the public what we are actually doing besides housing offenders."

The prison system has agricultural operations at 50 units and works to produce as much of its own food as possible, using the labor of more than 6,000 offenders. Consider this:

The prison system manages more than 142,000 acres in 47 counties.

It owns 15,000 to 17,000 cattle.

It has more than 300,000 egg-laying hens.

Dale Ousley, the Stock Show’s superintendent for commercial Herefords, said he was excited to learn that the prison system has such a robust agribusiness.

"It’s fantastic how much they save taxpayers in the state," Ousley said. "We think that we are paying to incarcerate people, but some of them earn their keep."

Currie manages nearly 13,000 acres of livestock and land at the Eastham facility north of Huntsville, where supervised inmates help raise cattle, chickens and pigs; grow vegetables; and operate a feed mill. The prison system also has a packing plant, beef-processing plant and vegetable-canning plant, as well as cotton gins to produce prison uniforms. It also breeds and raises horses and dogs.

Officials said the food produced ends up on inmates’ plates in prison mess halls — except for premium-quality beef.

The cattle are sold, and the proceeds are used to buy lower-quality beef for the inmates (no steaks in prison).

Loyd Smith, program specialist for the system’s beef cattle operation, oversees cattle on 13 of the prison system’s farms.

Each year, some cattle are sold at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Houston Stock Show, where they do well, he said.

But the main reason for going is to educate the public about the prison system’s agricultural program.

"Our program is a cost avoidance for the taxpayer," said Smith, adding that it’s a rewarding job. "You are able to see the result of what you do."