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November 5, 2012

Prison factories caught in private business debate

TALLADEGA, Ala. — On the outside, Unicor, with its big oaks and magnolia trees, looks like it could be part of a landscaped industrial park. Step a little closer and it’s clear the apparel shop lies in the middle of a medium-security federal prison in east Alabama.

The factory and those like it that employ convicted felons are at the heart of a simmering debate about whether prisons should be siphoning away jobs that could be filled by those who need them during the nation’s toughest period of unemployment in decades.

Congressional Republicans, a handful of Democrats and private-industry critics want to clamp down on Unicor, the trade name for Federal Prison Industries.

Almost 13,000 inmates working in federal lockups around the country for a few dollars a day make everything from military uniforms to office furniture to electrical parts that are sold exclusively to federal agencies. With annual revenues that reached $900 million last year, Unicor is the federal government’s 36th-largest vendor.

Corrections officials say the program teaches prisoners invaluable job skills and personal discipline that help cut down on their return to prison. Inmates who work in the program are 24 percent less likely to commit more crimes than other prisoners after being released, they say.

But Misti Keeton’s eyes welled with tears at the thought of losing her job to a convict. She sews military apparel in the west Alabama town of Fayette at American Power Source. The company is laying off about 50 workers at her plant and another one in Columbus, Miss., after losing a contract to make Air Force exercise garb.

“I’m terrified,” Keeton said. “I’ve got two teenagers at home. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say to them if I lose this job.”

Critics of the program say Unicor undercuts private companies because of lower operating costs and laws that require federal agencies to use inmate-produced products when able. Inmates in the Talladega prison factory are paid by the pieces of clothing they complete and average around $150 a month, which goes into an account at the prison. At American Power Source, workers make $9.25 an hour average, or about $1,480 a month based on a 40-hour week.

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