Unicor is the name given to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ industrial work program. Unicor factories produce many different items that are sold to the federal government. Work in these factories is paid at higher rates than other prison jobs.
Work has been a key part of the prison experience since the establishment of penitentiaries in the nineteenth century. During the 1930s, however, commitment to prison labor fell precipitously because of the Depression. To avoid competing with free labor, most states and the Federal government passed legislation that banned prisoner made products from interstate commerce. Bucking the trend, Congress established the Federal Prison Industries (FPI) on 23 June 1934 'to provide job skills training and employment for inmates serving sentences in the Federal Bureau of Prisons'. FPI, given the trade name Unicor in 1978, has remained a key part of prison labor organization in the Federal system ever since.
Around 26 percent of the prison population work for Federal Prison Industries. Prisoners are employed in one of five areas, roughly defined as 'metals', 'textiles', 'furniture', 'electronics' and 'graphics/services' where, among other things, they produce 'missile cable assemblies, kevlar military helmets, executive office furniture, prescription eye wear, metal prison security doors, military uniforms and data entry of patent and trademark documents.' (Unicor, 2000, p. 14).
To avoid competing with private industry, all goods produced in FPI factories are sold to the Federal Government rather than on the open market. While the majority of products are sold to the US Military, other federal agencies like the FBI, Bureau of Prisons and FDA may purchase desks, stationary, uniforms or other items made by prison labor. Some Unicor factories recondition old computers or recycle trash.
Recently, Unicor has been experimenting with sub-contractual agreements with other companies who sell to the Federal Government. In 1999 Unicor also began to produce items for the commercial market that would otherwise be made overseas. Finally, Unicor trades with private companies to buy raw materials, services, supplies and equipment for its prison factories.
According to its supporters, work in Unicor factories has a variety of positive effects. For example, prisoners employed through FPI have lower re-conviction rates after release and they are more law abiding while incarcerated. They also contribute financially to court-ordered restitution programs through a mandatory arrangement whereby 50 per cent of FPI wages are set aside for this purpose.
SOME PROBLEMS WITH UNICOR
Despite this praise, however, Unicor has its critics. First, there are many more applicants to Federal Prisons Industry factories than there are jobs because they pay the best wages. This means that there is generally a long waiting list for employment in any facility. Also most of the factories are located in men’s facilities, leaving women prisoners with fewer opportunities to earn the higher wages associated with Unicor jobs, or to gain any of the experience and job skills they offer.
Another issue that raises concern for some is the close relationship between Unicor and the Department of Defense. Over 60% of sales from Unicor are made to the U.S. Military for a range of different services from uniforms to helicopter cables and wiring used in weaponry. Because the US Military then sells some of its products overseas, items produced by prisoners may fall into the hands of violent regimes. Although prisoners may choose whether or not they are prepared to support to the military in this way, the financial attraction of Unicor must surely influence their decision. In addition, prisoners at the second most secure facility in the federal system, USP Marion, have no ability to make up their own minds. Some time in the FPI factory is a pre-requisite for transfer out of Marion and the factory manufactures cables for the Department of Defense.
Finally, ever since it was established, Unicor has been criticized for its inefficiency. In a lengthy and biting assessment of the Federal Prison Industries, sociologist Christian Parenti points out that even though Unicor 'is guaranteed a labor supply at absurdly low wages, is given direct subsidies, and has a guaranteed market' it is 'an economic basket case'. Moreover, it is more expensive and less efficient than other providers. Unicor products cost the Department of Defense, on average, ‘13 percent more than the same goods supplied by private firms’ while 42 percent of FPI orders arrive late, ‘compared to an industry-wide average delinquency rate of only 6 percent'. Finally, Parenti finds that those orders that were filled, often delivered poor quality products. Thus 'a 1993 report found that Unicor wire sold to the military failed at nearly twice the rate of the military's next worst supplier.’ (Parenti, 1999, p. 232).
Prisoners, as a group, tend to have little legal work experience. Studies have found that, nation-wide up to 40% of all offenders were unemployed or marginally employed prior to arrest and that 83% of probation and parole violators were unemployed at the time of violation. Training inmates in employable skills through prison industry programs like Unicor may offer them some alternatives after release. However, unless prison jobs are twinned with employment opportunities in the community, they may prove to be little more than a management tool to maintain discipline during a sentence.
See also Federal Prison System, Hard Labor, Labor, Privatization
Bosworth, M. (2002). The US Federal Prison System. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Levasseur, R. L. (1998). Armed and dangerous. In D. Burton-Rose, D. Pens, & P. Wright (Eds.), The celling of America: An inside look at the U.S. prison industry Monroe, ME: Common Courage
Parenti, C. (1999). Lockdown America: Police and prisons in the age of crisis. New York: Verso.
Saylor, W. G., & Gaes, G. G. (1992). The Post-Release Employment Project: Prison work has measurable effects on post-release success. Federal Prisons Journal, 2(4), 33-36.
Unicor (2000). 1999 Annual report: Paying dividends to America. Washington, DC: Federal Prisons Industries, Inc.