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Prison factories caught in private biz debate

Associated Press Modified: November 4, 2012 at 2:31 pm •  Published: November 4, 2012
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The tension between private jobs and rehabilitating prisoners has hounded the prison industry program since it began under President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression in 1934, when the national unemployment rate was 22 percent.

Back then, the American Federation of Labor opposed creating a prison-based manufacturing network, arguing it would suck jobs away from the private sector at a time when working people needed every job they could get. The arguments today against Unicor are similar as the nation tries to escape lingering high unemployment following the worst recession since before World War II.

Federal agencies are now required to purchase items when possible from Unicor. However, Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., is the primary sponsor of legislation to change that.

Among other things, the proposal that has drawn bipartisan support would subject prison factories to direct competition with private business by removing a requirement that makes Unicor the "mandatory source" for some products for government agencies.

The House passed such legislation in 2003 and 2006 before it stalled in the Senate both times; this year's version got stuck in the committee that held the hearing where Sibal spoke in June.

"We'll get started again early in the next Congress, and I think we've got a good opportunity to get something done," said John M. Palatiello of the Business Coalition for Fair Competition, which supports the bill.

But with Unicor plants at 66 prisons nationwide, critics say prisoners are doing work that law-abiding citizens could be performing. The operation isn't nearly as big as just a few years ago because the sluggish economy and tight budgets have reduced government orders, forcing the Bureau of Prisons to close or downsize 43 Unicor factories nationwide.

James Hamm isn't following the Unicor debate closely, but he knows all about prison factories: He's serving 38 years for bank robbery at the Talladega Federal Correctional Institution, which houses 1,050 prisoners. Hamm is among the 210 inmates who produce military apparel in a 30,000-square-foot factory at the prison.

Hamm, 34, has used prison wages to pay his court-ordered fine of $1,200, and he earned the high school equivalency degree that was required as part of his participation in Unicor. He said the prison job has taught him about hard work and responsibility — things he didn't know anything about on the outside.

"Every morning I get up at the same time, whether it's a holiday or weekend," Hamm said. "I come to work every day."

About 130 miles away on the other side of Alabama, Keeton does the same thing at American Power Source.

Keeton sympathizes with the need to rehabilitate prisoners in a way few others might — she's a former inmate herself. Keeton served time at a state prison on drug-related charges but is now laboring in the same building where her mother worked for 27 years for a different apparel maker.

"The government doesn't want me on welfare," she said. "They don't want me to be a repeat offender. So why are they going to give my job to someone who is not going to come to this plant when they get out of prison?"