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They’re Not Federal Prisons — They’re Factories With Fences
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More than a decade ago, I was working with a publisher who was experiencing a crisis of conscience. Printing books in the U.S. had gotten expensive. But in Asia, printers were offering quality work at significant savings. The publisher told me from the perspective of the bottom line, the two top contenders were printers in China, where there was a good chance the work would be done by prisoners, or Malaysia, where there was good chance the work would be done by children. So the ladies and gentlemen at this publishing house faced a dilemma: possible convict labor, or possible child labor? Ultimately, they decided to go with possible convict labor.

Flash forward to February 2016, when then-President Barack Obama signed into the law the Trade Facilitation and Enforcement Act. Among other things, this legislation turned away from our shores products that had been made by prison labor. Who could be against that? Right? I mean, it’s feel-good legislation — and I believe that sincerely. It was the right thing to do.

But there was a niggling, elephant-in-the-Oval-Office detail that was overlooked at the signing. As President Obama put pen to paper, inmates in America’s federal prisons were producing a host of products that flowed unobstructed into the U.S. economy. They had been doing so for decades. And they are still doing so today.

It started in 1934, when Federal Prison Industries was created by the federal prison system to keep inmates occupied in a productive way as they served out their sentences. Today, this program is known as UNICOR, an acronym the meaning of which is unknown. Check the FAQ page on the UNICOR website and it says, “‘UNICOR’ is simply the trade name for Federal Prison Industries, Inc.” A definition that is less than helpful. My hunch is the “COR” part is an abbreviation for “Corrections” or maybe “Correctional.” I have no clue what the “UNI” part could mean. I welcome suggestions.

Continue reading the FAQs and you’ll run into an especially tone-deaf example of copywriting: UNICOR refers to its operations within prisons as “factories with fences.”

Yes, you read that correctly.

But on the subject of wages, UNICOR does not fall back on a clumsy euphemism; it is perfectly candid. On the “factory” floor, the starting salary is 23 cents per hour. It maxes out at $1.15 an hour. As it happens, a close friend is doing time at a federal prison fifteen minutes from my front door. According to that prison’s “Inmate Admission and Orientation Handbook” (most of it is lifted from the model text provided by the Federal Bureau of Prisons), UNICOR’s prison factories produce “electronic cable assemblies, executive and systems furniture, metal pallet racks, stainless steel food service equipment, mattresses, towels, utility bags, brooms, data entry, signage, and printing.”

The handbook tells us that many federal prisons have a waiting list of inmates who want to work for UNICOR. A job with UNICIOR, the handbook explains, “provides an opportunity to [sic] the inmates to pay their court-ordered financial obligations to society on [sic] a faster pace than any other job in the institution.”

Okay, but let’s consider a white-collar criminal who has been sent away for using his investors’ money to finance a profligate lifestyle. The court orders the inmate to make restitution to his investors — that’s standard operating procedure in sentencing for such a crime. Even if an inmate is at the top of UNICOR’s pay scale, how much of a dent is $1.15 an hour going to make in an outstanding balance that probably runs to hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions of dollars? But, from an inmate’s point of view, doing non-UNICOR menial prison labor is a lousy option. Jobs such as cleaning the prison kitchen, or maintaining the prison grounds pay between 11 cents and 40 cents an hour. In comparison, UNICOR’s wages look pretty attractive.

It will come as no surprise that UNICOR is making money. For 2015, the organization reported net sales of $482 million. Of that, 5 percent was spent on inmate salaries.

And that raises another issue. At a time when President Donald Trump, among others, is talking about strategies to bring American manufacturing jobs back to the United States from overseas, of reviving the “Made in the USA” brand, the Bureau of Prisons’ UNICOR program is turning out products that, because of extremely low overhead, undercuts the same products produced by private companies in America. How can an American manufacturer, who has to pay American workers at least minimum wage, compete against a labor force that will never make more than $1.15 an hour?

With the Trade Facilitation and Enforcement Act, I think Congress and President Obama made a good call. It is immoral, not to mention economically self-defeating, to permit into U.S. markets goods made by prison labor overseas. So why isn’t it just as immoral and just as self-defeating to flood the marketplace with products made by prison labor here in America?

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