Jonathon Long Talks Federal Prison Industries

My friend Jonathon Long has a blog that frequently discusses government contract and procurement issues. This time he takes on the issue of set asides for the Federal Bureau of Prisons and their business (yes business), UNICOR that is a protected source of procurement for many products used by military personnel including uniforms and helmets. We discussed this issue over the summer. It is our position that incarceration of those convicted of crimes is a burden that must be borne by society through its government administered institutions. The moment incarceration becomes a profit generating enterprise it becomes vulnerable to corruption. UNICOR uses prison labor to produce a wide variety of products. They pay prisoners pennies for their work. Oftentimes, UNICOR products cost more than their commercial counterparts. You do the math. What’s more, PPE produced by UNICOR has failed in the past. Set asides, that guarantee contracts to UNICOR should stop. If they want the business, they should competitively bid like everyone else and be required to pay a minimum wage for their laborers.

Read his blog post here


16 Responses to “Jonathon Long Talks Federal Prison Industries”

  1. Juan says:

    Couldn’t agree more.

  2. mike says:

    I second that motion. I couldn’t agree more.

  3. Brad says:

    Interesting article.

    “The question from the tax payer’s mind is simple – wouldn’t it be better for the $262.7M in sales to be pushed into the free enterprise market and potentially re-employ the 6,505 tax paying, sewing and manufacturing people who may be unemployed today?”

    I would ask this the other way around though. Wouldn’t it be better if the $262.7 million be pushed back into the Federal Budget as it never should have been charged to begin with? Shouldn’t we as taxpayers be upset because FPI was charging us full rate for items made with penny labor and guaranteed contracts?

    Moving those jobs into the economy will not benefit anyone. Private companies will try as hard as prisoners to do as little work for as much money as possible, it’s how the system works. Taxpayers will still be paying the same amount per item by moving these products to the private sector.

    • mpower6428 says:

      ” Taxpayers will still be paying the same amount per item by moving these products into the private sector”….

      ok, so… its a wash, its even…? except nobody should ride for free, not even FPI, and if its all the same id rather they didnt enjoy that kind of profit margin on our backs, do it the old way.

      socialism isnt the answer but, neither is crony capitalism. FPI is a case study in that regard.

  4. straps says:

    I agree with most of the reservations expressed here, but there are some flipsides worthy of note.

    Employment in UNICOR is not a part of your sentence. If you want to stay in your pod and do plyometrics for your whole bid you can do that too. Yes UNICOR is “sold” to inmates, and their performance is considered at parole hearings and such.

    UNICOR inmates are compensated on a scale that presumes that they are earning back their room and board. This may sound like a scam, but UNICOR proceeds are, indeed, funneled back into facility operations in ways that make incarceration more humane without forcing the federal government to put funding for prison operations against funding for Defense, Veterans or the young, old or infirm.

    Employment in UNICOR is considered a priviledge. If you enter federal confinement without a high school diploma or GED, you cannot even enter the testing pipeline for UNICOR. Correctional work programs at every level have had good luck incentivizing the completion of basic educational milestones in this way. Also, UNICOR is run as a job to which you can report on time ready to work–or not. Correctional staff ensure that inmate employees are fed and given the freedom of movement needed to get to work, but an inmate who doesn’t want to work will be terminated for absenteeism or abandoning employment. Not all federal inmates are wayward stockbrokers; many have pretty fundamental issues with the idea of checking their ego at their doorsteps and making peace with a life of work. UNICOR lets them build that capacity in a controlled environment. It also lets them make choices like NOT smuggling contraband out of their production areas for use against other inmates or correctional staff.

    UNICOR is an opportunity for inmates to pay restitution–either to the government for taxes evaded, or to victims. It should be noted that a restitution obligation gets you priority consideration for employment in UNICOR programs.

    Whether UNICOR should have the opportunity to compete against businesses operated by entrepreneurs with good ideas is, admittedly, a different matter. There have been instances where prison administrators have connected employment in UNICOR with fundamental quaity-of-life issues. There have been others where prison administrators tasked their labor pools with missions fundamentally unsuitable for that type of employee.

    On the flip side I have toured the production facilities and back offices of TWO gear makers featured on this site (in conjuction with the fulfillment of orders for my military and civilian emloyers) who use Maquiladora labor to compete and control costs. And immigration and/or working-condition violations at gear makers such as LB Technologies, Michael Bianco, Tac Tailor, RITR and others have been discussed here and elsewhere extensively. Blaming subs and claiming ignorance of the conditions they maintain is a 50% explanation/excuse.

    If UNICOR is functioning outside its core competencies, risking the safety of American military personnel and first responders, imposing undue costs on the American tax payer as it violates the fundamentals of teh American Social Contract by all means let’s fix that. And if a prime military contractor’s leadership is doing the same thing with nominally “free” people by all means let’s include them–at whatever level a judge and jury deem appropriate–in UNICOR operations appropriate to the scope of their expertise.

    My 1.02…

    • mpower6428 says:

      your commercial is too long, the sales pitch is lost in your rather cumbersome prose, tighten it up a bit.

  5. TM says:

    Mpower6428, maybe you should read his comments because he makes some very knowledgeable points. You sound like a lazy high school sophomore who doesn’t want to read.

  6. Chris says:

    “It is our position that incarceration of those convicted of crimes is a burden that must be borne by society through its government administered institutions. The moment incarceration becomes a profit generating enterprise it becomes vulnerable to corruption”

    Well said. Incentivising the incarceration of Americans is not the way to deter crime.

  7. Walter says:

    Is this an issue of sympathy for the prisoners or of the quality of the work and how many contracts they get? Because I could give two [email protected] about the prisoners. They need to pay the taxpayers back for housing their worthless hides.

  8. T.D. says:

    I absolutely agree that making profits off prisoners risks making having more citizens “inside” as it would be a “good thing”.

    I, however, belive that incarceration SHOULD NOT be a burden carried by society, but by those CONVICTED.

    Now, I am Canadian and it’s different for us, however I have a hard time accepting the fact that my taxes pay the 80 000$ a year we need to keep convicted felons inside while not only do I do much less than that amount, there are many homeless people who deserve help and who live in much worse conditions than criminals. Those criminals have video games, training machines and spend their days getting in better physical shape while some are searching trash for something that could help us survive until tomorrow?

    That inmate labor gets used for profit, I disagree. But that it refunds the cost spent to keep them inside shouldn’t even be questioned.

    Remember, those inside have a debt to society; not the other way around.

  9. mike says:

    TD, unfortunately you’ve missed something. Inmate labor is used for profit, as you noted, but it’s not used to refund the cost to the taxpayer. The burden on taxpayers will never change because the profits from this shameful industry is making a bunch of crooked people’s pockets fatter.

    If the inmate population was working toward, literally, paying their debt to society we might be doing better for ourselves. As long as the inmate population is working toward making certain people rich I fear that the legal system is in extreme jeopardy; getting into prison will become easier and easier and leaving will become more and more difficult.

  10. TM says:

    A lot of Straps information is very good. UNICOR offers some good incentives and skill training to inmates, which will eventually help them upon release and make our communities safer. In addition, inmates who work for UNICOR are required to give 50% of their pay to pay off fines, court fees and restitution – much more than the other inmates in the federal prisons. Those inmates in UNICOR can pay for their own commissary, phone calls, clothing, etc., instead of asking their families to send that money to them. In my experience, my husband was able, when working for UNICOR, to send money home to pay for our child’s summer camps and to buy savings bonds for his college expenses. So why is that any less important than someone on the outside being employed and supporting his/her family. Not to mention that it really helped with my husband’s self-esteem and seeing himself as a productive person who could be a productive citizen upon release.

  11. Bob Sloan says:

    At the core of this issue is the exploitation of inmates. It isn’t about punishment or instilling a work ethic any longer; it is about making the most money off of a captive workforce. Readers should understand that UNICOR is a “stand alone” operation, a wholly owned U.S. corporation. As such it does not depend upon tax dollars to operate, it operates off of its sales and profits. Taxpayers receive no benefit from those profits. Yes, some of the earned wages of the inmate worker is set-aside to reimburse for the costs of incarceration. However with their wages set between $.23 and $1.35 per hour, the sum received is negligible. Actual profits are kept by and used as the “Corporation” sees fit. None of that money finds it’s way back into the general revenue fun of our government.

    Today through the federal PIECP program (18 USC 1761[c]) the Dept. of Justice controls more than 85% of ALL prison labor in the U.S. – state and federal. They support a concept of private businesses/manufacturers moving their operations from the private sector into prisons to capitalize off of the cheap and readily available labor. Here is a link to one of the recruiting video’s created by the NCIA and the DOJ, BJA encouraging business owners to make that transition to prison labor: It takes a moment to load, but after watching you’ll see the BJA and DOJ cooperated in the making of this video.
    Nationally there are more than 600,000 inmates working in prison related industries in 300+ state and federal prisons. Many of the products we purchase in our grocers and retailers are now made by prisoners – including parts for our F-16’s and Patriot Missile systems (guidance components) and wiring for our commercial aircraft, etc.
    See Eric Holder’s memo on Prison industries here:

  12. Administrator says:

    Federal Prison Industries, Inc., doing business as UNICOR, Washington, D.C., was awarded a firm-fixed-price contract with a maximum $14,919,701 for universal camouflage pattern and multi-cam pattern extreme cold wet weather trousers. Other location of performance is Kentucky. Using service is Army. There were nine responses to the solicitation. Type of appropriation is fiscal 2012 through 2013 Defense Working Capital Funds. The date of performance completion is May 30, 2013. The Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support, Philadelphia, Pa., is the contracting activity (SPM1C1-12-C-F002).

    • Bob Sloan says:

      There are a lot of these awards with huge amounts. One product most are unaware of are clean/alternative energy components. UNICOR has a lock on solar panels and is now making windmill components as well. They partnered with an Oregon Co. (Spire) to train prisoners in manufacturing and installation of solar equipment. They just finished a multi-million dollar contract to outfit the Maryland Dept. of State building with solar…as well as many prisons in CA. and elsewhere. Total sales in ’10 $860 million plus.

  13. Buckaroomedic says:

    Private American business should not have to compete with the Government. I’m all for inmates working, how about Sheriff Joe’s chain gangs? That’s work, right?

    The funny thing about this is that people get all up in arms talking about “prison labor” in the PRC and Viet Nam, yet we’ve been doing it here for years too. Kind of a double standard if you ask me.