- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 19, 2009

HUNTSVILLE, TEXAS (AP) - The rhythmic thump-thump-thump reverberates throughout the cavernous building like a heartbeat, or the dance floor of a rockin’ good club.

Several decades old, the warehouse-like structure at the northern edge of Huntsville is an exclusive club of sorts. More than 100 men, by invitation-only and wearing identical white cotton jumpsuits, tolerate the din five days a week. And the beat rarely changes.

What they turn out by the thousands daily is arguably the most common physical link some 20 million Texas vehicle owners have to their state prison system, the nation’s second largest behind California.

License plates.

“Everybody’s got one,” said Tom Pierce, warden at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Wynne Unit. “And they all came from the Wynne Unit.”

Mini-assembly lines, four of them, staffed by the unit’s inmates, each spit out 35 to 40 Texas license plates every minute.

Stockpiles now are growing with the new general license plate design for passenger cars and trucks picked by Texans in an online poll conducted last year. The new “Lone Star Texas” plates should start circulating in a few months.

About 1.6 million current passenger vehicle plates _ those with the cowboy on the horse and the oil derrick and space shuttle _ were left at the end of February. With fewer Texans buying new cars during the economic downturn, the supply of old plates lasted longer than expected.

“Our numbers have been all over the map,” said Kim Sue Lia Perkes, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation. “Sometimes only 300,000 a month are moving out, which is half our usual number for passenger plates.

“We originally expected to have our inventory exhausted by now, but we based our assessment on past trends.”

Perkes refused to allow The Associated Press to photograph the new plates coming off the production line, saying she “wasn’t really ready” to show off the finished product. But an image of the new plate is on the agency’s Web site.

The big switch to the new license design began around the first of the year at the Wynne Unit plate plant, which has been producing plates since the mid 1970s.

The new plate has a white Texas star in the upper left corner over a sky blue background splashed with red, “TEXAS” in bold white letters outlined in blue along the top, “The Lone Star State” in white script superimposed over a mountain horizon at the bottom. In the center, there are seven black digits _ one more than on the current plate.

The extra digit is needed to account for the state’s population growth and corresponding jump in the number of cars and trucks. Simply put, Texas ran out of unique combinations of six-digit numbers and letters after more than 31 million pairs.

An image of a state-shaped Texas Flag serves as a hyphen splitting the seven digits _ three on the left, four on the right. Besides the new design and extra digit, the most noticeable change is that the plate is completely flat, except for a raised edge that serves as a frame. The numbers and letters no longer are stamped.

Instead, a computer-generated digital image is transferred onto a roll of adhesive-backed reflective material that’s affixed to a like-size strip of aluminum. The aluminum is sliced into the plate-size rectangles that will wind up on everything from BMWs to VW Beetles.

St. Paul, Minn.-based 3M Co. supplied the technology that first was used in Texas a few years ago to make specialty license plates. Previously, a machine stamped letters and numerals into the metal, and paint was applied to the raised digits.

The new technology now extended to all the plates is more environmentally friendly. Solvents are no longer needed for paint cleanup. Neither are the huge ovens that baked the freshly painted plates at 350 degrees.

One thing that didn’t change is the cut of the chopping machines, which also knock out four mounting holes and produce the rhythmic thump-thump-thump that vibrates through the building.

Each plate is inspected for defects by a team of inmates. Like nearly all Texas inmates, they work for free, slipping pieces of waxed paper between those that pass muster and packing them in boxes.

Then it’s “out the back door,” said Dudley Park, the plant manager.

The transportation department has been registering vehicles for nearly a century, taking over the duties from Texas counties in 1917 when it was known as the Texas Highway Department. License plates were made by inmates at the Walls Unit, a few miles south of the Wynne Unit, beginning in the 1930s. Some 40 years later, the operation moved to what used to be called the Wynne State Farm, a former plantation that first housed disabled or sick prisoners in 1883. It now has about 2,300 inmates, 160 of them working at the plate plant.

That number should dwindle to about 110 once the phaseout of the old stamping machinery is completed, Park said.

In years past, Texas prisoners made plates under contract for other states, as well as for some countries in Central America. Now all the plant’s capacity is needed to keep up with the demand for Texas plates. It churns out some 9 million plates a year, including hundreds of specialty plates promoting military affiliations, pro sports teams and everything from Texas smiles and “God Bless Texas.” There’s even a Texas specialty plate for Louisiana State University alumni.

“I’m fixing to go home in 14 months,” said inmate Tommy Lopez, who’s worked at the plant for about four years. “Every car I’ll see with a license plate, I’ll be thinking about this.”

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