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Texas Correctional Industries sends soldiers to war with
good will items

hand holding the american flag with soldiers standing at attention in the background.
An American flag is raised in front of soldiers attached to the 56th Brigade Combat Team during a deployment ceremony at Baylor University in Waco on New Year’s Day. Soldiers from the Thunderbolt brigade were deployed to Iraq in January with good will items manufactured by Texas Correctional Industries.
Photo by David Nunnelee
Bluebonnets in Baghdad? It could happen if the wildflower seeds Texas Correctional Industries (TCI) gave to Texas Army National Guard troops now serving in Iraq take root.

The complimentary packets of wildflower seeds were just one of the good will items TCI sent along with the 3,000 soldiers of the 56th Brigade Combat Team that were deployed to Iraq from Fort Hood in January. At the request of brigade commanders, TCI also embroidered eight cushions with the brigade’s T patch logo and manufactured five stainless steel paperweights sporting the same emblem of an arrowhead inset with the letter T. Other items ordered by the brigade included more than 100 key chains, some bearing the Texas state seal and others the Texas flag and the T patch logo. One hundred leather coasters imprinted with the brigade symbol and 225 magnetic ribbons like those people attach to their vehicles to show their support for the troops were also provided by TCI.

“The products that they made for us are absolutely fantastic,” said brigade commander Col. James K. “Red” Brown, Jr. during deployment ceremonies attended by Gov. Rick Perry, U.S. Senator John Cornyn, and other dignitaries on New Year’s Day at Baylor University’s Floyd Casey Stadium in Waco. “It’s just wonderful workmanship.”

Former TCI Assistant Director Tony D’Cunha, who with his wife Lisa attended the deployment ceremony at the special invitation of Col. Brown, said the agency was first contacted about the possibility of making the items for the departing soldiers by Mark Beto, a retired U.S. Army colonel and brother of Dan Beto, director of the Correctional Management Institute of Texas at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. He said Dan would often purchase items with a Texas theme from TCI and send them to his brother when Mark was stationed in Germany. Following his retirement, Mark took a job with the Texas National Guard at its Camp Mabry headquarters in Austin.

“Mark wanted to know if we could make items with a Texas theme to give to the troops deploying to Iraq so they could have something to remind them of Texas,” said D’Cunha, who recently was named assistant director for Transportation & Supply within the Manufacturing & Logistics Division of TDCJ. “There were several factories involved. Our sign shop at the Wynne Unit, the textile mill, the Coffield metal fabrication plant, and the sign shop at the Beto Unit. What was really neat was that even though we didn’t have much notice, when they found out who it was for, they jumped through hoops to get it done.”

Col. Brown called the good will items “invaluable” to the brigade’s mission, part of which was helping to secure the Iraqi national elections at the end of January.

“They’re good will things that we’ve been able to provide the people that have helped us do things,” the colonel said. “We’re taking a huge portion of them into Iraq that we’re going to be able to distribute when we meet with the Iraqi citizens.”

D’Cunha said it was an honor to make the items for the brigade and to represent TDCJ at the ceremony that marked the largest single deployment of Texas Army National Guard troops since World War II.

“It was special in that we were trying to do something for our troops and for our country,” D’Cunha said. “I’m extremely proud of being a part of it.”

As for the wildflower seeds, D’Cunha hopes they germinate along with the freedom of the Iraqi people.

“It will be interesting,” he said. “Come spring in Iraq, you might see some bluebonnets.”

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TDCJ industrial shop makes road signs for the times

inmates measuring the sign for IH-35 while supervisor looks on.
Beto Sign Shop supervisor Rick Dockery and two offenders check the lettering on a new overhead sign made for the Texas Department of Transportation.
Photo by David Nunnelee
Texas Correctional Industries (TCI) makes signs for the times.

The signs made primarily at the Beto Unit near Palestine are more reflective than the older versions and printed in a new font designed to be easier for motorists to read. They’re highway guide signs, the large directional billboards fastened to overpasses across the state that help drivers find their way.

TCI has been producing road signs for the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and other government entities for 25 years but just got into making the giant green and white overhead signs last July. Until then, they were made by TxDOT and private contractors, and some still are. But since the summer, the Beto Sign Shop has produced $100,000 worth of the signs or sold the material for making them. A second sign shop, recently opened at the Boyd Unit near Fairfield, sells road sign sheeting panels to customers that also include state agencies other than TxDOT, cities, counties and school districts.

“It’s going to be lucrative, I think,” said Sign Shop Manager Tim Williams about the new overhead sign business. “So far, so good.”

Williams estimates that about 90 percent of the signs Texas motorists see along roadways maintained by the state come from TDCJ in one form or another. Last fiscal year, the Beto Sign Shop produced 1.1 million square feet of signage that brought in $5.9 million in retail sales. Sales to TxDOT accounted for approximately 98 percent of the revenue total. Sales to other outside customers typically amount to between $150,000 to $200,000 annually, Williams said.

“TxDOT pays the bills,” he said.

But before paying the bills, TxDOT meticulously tests the materials that go into the making of the road signs and then inspects the finished products to ensure that they meet specifications. The state transportation agency has two full-time inspectors assigned to Beto to monitor quality assurance of the signs that must meet strict standards for reflectivity and other properties. Prior to production, samples of the aluminum panels used for the signs are tested at the TxDOT testing laboratory in Austin, where samples of the reflective sheeting and colored inks are also scrutinized.

“Every raw material that we use goes through a testing process,” Williams said.

Once cut primarily from high-grade plywood, road signs are now made almost exclusively from aluminum, a costlier raw material than plywood but more environmentally-friendly because of its suitability for recycling.

“The reason for getting away from the plywood was that it had no value after it became a sign,” Williams said. “It stays out there until it’s run over or it rots. Aluminum can be reused, offsetting the higher cost.”

Over the past three years, the Beto Sign Shop itself has salvaged about 200,000 square feet of aluminum from damaged road signs by stripping off their sheeting with a high-pressure water spray and reusing the panels. It uses old plywood signs collected by TxDOT from around the state to build palettes that now hold the new aluminum plates.

Regulatory signs, such as those that tell drivers to stop or yield on the roadway, account for about 30 percent of TDCJ’s production, Williams said.

“They’re the signs that if you don’t follow you get a ticket,” he said. “It’s nothing to get an order for a thousand stop signs at one time.”

TDCJ offenders – about 97 are assigned to the Beto Sign Shop – also make the yellow warning signs that alert motorists to road hazards and the orange signs seen along road construction zones. Other signs produced at Beto include those that mark school crossings and those used for civil defense purposes, such as the marking of a hurricane evacuation route along the Texas Gulf Coast. Producing street signs for cities makes up a small portion of the shop’s business.

Williams said the new aluminum overhead guide signs are made with sheeting that contains tiny glass prisms rather than the small round glass beads used in the sheeting on the old signs, making them more reflective at night. The new font, called Clearview, incorporates both capital and lowercase letters to make the signs easier to read. TxDOT has been installing the new signs in the Houston region over the past year at a cost of $4.5 million.

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