Among the many customers to whom PCCA sells cotton, a few are quite different from traditional textile operations. One of the most unique also is one of the oldest textile mills in Texas.
The unique characteristics of this mill include: an abundance of available and reliable labor; a captive consumer group that is not subject to changing fashion trends and fads and is content to wear only solid white apparel; and the highest security of any textile mill in the United States. This customer is known as the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).
Sales of PCCA members’ cotton to TDCJ in the past have been small compared to most of the cooperative’s other customers, totaling only a few thousand bales in most years. After all, TDCJ is one of the largest cotton producers in the state. But, when weather or other factors adversely impact production of cotton on prison farms, TDCJ officials know they can count on PCCA to supply the raw material.
The department’s textile operations are interesting in many respects. Construction of the Walls Unit in Huntsville began in 1848, and six years later the Texas Legislature purchased equipment for a cotton mill to be located there for the production of cotton and woolen materials. During the Civil War, Union prisoners of war, slave labor, and the regular inmate population produced clothing for Texas soldiers, needy widows and orphans. Demand was so great that inmates were borrowed from Louisiana and Arkansas to increase textile production.
The Walls Unit today houses the yarn manufacturing and recycling functions of TDCJ’s textile operations. The unit replaced its ring spinning equipment with five open-end spinning frames containing 192 heads each in 1979 in order to process the styles of cotton grown in Texas and to be more cost effective. Using an 18 bale laydown and mixing recycled fiber from garment cuttings, the Walls Unit produces yarn to manufacture fabric for offenders’ (inmates’) uniforms, towels and for wet mops and dust mops. The plant runs 24 hours per day, five days per week.
The yarn then is shipped to the Estelle Unit, formerly known as Ellis 2, outside of Huntsville where TDCJ has maintained weaving operations since 1985. Estelle’s 40 looms, including seven modern airjet looms, produce fabric for uniforms and terrycloth for towels. Like the Walls Unit, Estelle operates a 24- hour, five-day schedule.
The fabric made at the Estelle Unit is shipped to TDCJ’s garment factories at several prison units throughout the state, including the Eastham Unit also near Huntsville. The Eastham Unit alone produces 20,000 towels, 10,000 pants, and 6,000 shirts per week.
TDCJ’s total textile production figures are staggering. According to Walls Unit Plant Manager Henry Spikes, a 23-year employee of TDCJ, the entire system last fiscal year produced the following:
“We do not manufacture the fabric for sheets and pillowcases,” Spikes explains. “We purchase those from outside vendors and make them into the final products at our facilities,” he says. “Otherwise, TDCJ is self-sufficient in uniforms, towels and other products.”
Offenders who work in TDCJ’s Texas Correctional Industries’ plants learn valuable work skills and are compensated with “good time” which can be used to shorten their sentences. More important, these efforts to be self- sufficient help reduce the financial burden of all Texas taxpayers, and occasionally provide another market for PCCA members’ cotton.