INMATES at the Harris County jail are paying their debt to society not only by serving time but by raising up to half a million dollars for the local government this year.
Five days a week, hot-check writers, shoplifters, and petty thieves stand alongside a conveyor belt and sort the county's paper refuse. Others bale cardboard boxes. And still others repair wooden pallets for resale.
For the first six months of fiscal year 1995, the Harris County recycling program has grossed $270,000. To raise that much money in property taxes, the county would have to collect from 525 new homeowners with houses valued at $100,000 each.
Employing inmates as manual labor is as old as rock quarries. But in the 1990s, as prison populations grow and government budgets shrink, convicts are increasingly seen as a labor pool that cannot only clean up highway litter but generate municipal revenues.
"Without the inmate labor, we'd be breaking even," says Joe Sweeney, a field representative for the Harris County Purchasing Agency, which oversees the recycling program.
Following Harris County's lead, other Texas municipalities are starting similar recycling programs. Galveston County, 45 minutes south of Houston, has grossed $26,000 since January, using adult, and sometimes juvenile, probationers fulfilling community-service sentences.
One of the reasons the Harris County program is so lucrative is that the inmates are free labor. They get no pay and do not accumulate "good time" for the work.
Some other states and towns that use convicts' labor pay for their time. In Oregon, for example, prisoners are required to work or study 40 hours a week. They earn wages of $5 to $8 per hour manufacturing a line of denim jeans and shirts. The state keeps 80 percent of the inmates' earnings for room and board, a victim-assistance fund, and income taxes.
Jay Jacobson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), sees no civil rights violations in not paying prisoners as long as the inmates are not coerced to participate in the program.
"The state is getting something for nothing, which I think is unfair," he says. "On the other hand, people volunteer here [at the ACLU] and don't get paid."
The money Harris County is earning from its recycling program is being deposited in the county's general fund.
The recycling program collects the waste paper from county office buildings. As barrels of paper pass down the moving belt, the inmates sort the trash into nine grades. Each grade is shredded and baled for sale to a local wastepaper company.
By separating the paper into uniform bales, the county is able to get a premium price. With the recent dramatic increases in paper costs, for example, the county is able to sell computer wastepaper for $455 a ton.
"When we say white paper, it's snow white," Mr. Sweeney says. "When we first started out, we really had to prove ourselves to the recycling community that we were putting out a good product."
This year, for the first time in the three-year-old operation, six companies had to outbid each other to gain the county's paper-sales contract. So as not to take jobs or sales from private enterprise, the Harris County program won't take refuse from privately owned firms. The county is wary even of taking the waste from other public entities that may already be paying a private contractor to haul it away, Sweeney says.