Where are the manufacturing jobs in America? Try our prisons

There are currently 14.9 million unemployed Americans. Now imagine if there were a cache of jobs out there, unskilled jobs that anyone needing work could just pick up and do. Jobs like assembling office furniture, making mattresses, sewing work uniforms together, and screen printing tee shirts. Jobs that created tangible things and would have that “Made in America” sticker. What if I told you these jobs existed, but you couldn’t have them? It’s true. Unless you’re incarcerated, these jobs are off limits.

Meet UNICOR, the federally owned, corporation friendly, American inmate employing, manufacturing hub. Using slogans like “Factories with fences” and “When the prisoners work, so does the system”, UNICOR has the mission to “employ and provide job skills training to the greatest number of inmates confined and to contribute to the safety of prisons by keeping its inhabitants constructively occupied.” Which it does by running about 100 factories in at least 30 states.

Corporations love UNICOR. Businesses like McDonalds (uniforms), Victoria’s Secret (lingerie), Eddie Bauer (wooden rocking horse assembly), Kmart (jeans), Dell (computer recycling), Honda (car parts until the United Auto Workers intervened), and even the U.S. Army (body armor, F-16 jet parts) have all used inmate factories. Where else in America can you legally pay workers $0.23- $1.15 per hour? Most factories also run 24 hours a day to deal with lower productivity levels. (The inmates just aren’t as highly motivated as other factory employees.) Inmate employees of UNICOR are also exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act and as an added bonus you don’t have to worry about OSHA stepping in. Until 2004, there were no OSHA factory inspections. Even now because the factories are located in prisons OSHA can’t just pop by for surprise inspections. (Due to a string of lawsuits involving UNICOR’s recycling programs, that may be changing.) It’s no wonder that in 2010 net sales for UNICOR was $889 million.

UNICOR isn’t without its critics though. Last year the Army recalled 44,000 protective helmets manufactured by UNICOR for shoddy quality. (In response, they stopped making helmets.) Despite this the U.S. Army still (sometimes using no bid contracts) buys protective gear from them and then turns around and distributes it to other countries like Kuwait and Pakistan. Other quality control problems have been found with electrical wire, hazardous waste recycling, desks, chairs, laundry services, industrial metal bolts, and electrical switches.

Other complaints include:

  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has tried to repeal UNICOR’s mandatory source status with claims that it infringes on private sector’s opportunities to compete for government contracts
  • Studies show that UNICOR costs on average 13% more for goods & services than regular retailers
  • Unlike other businesses, UNICOR doesn’t have to pay state, federal, or employee taxes
  • Prisoners make complicated weapon parts and safety supplies for law enforcement

Despite all of this UNICOR is thriving. Thanks to an ever-increasing influx of inmates, there’s never a shortage of willing labor. Which is part of the real issue. Unemployment leads to crime. The lack of manufacturing jobs (combined with job loss due to unfair labor practices) causes unemployment, which helps fuel this cycle where UNICOR ends up being the only real winner. We need to find a balance between sustainable employment for inmates and something that is fair for the rest of the job market. Until then we’re being forced to settle for government run sweatshops.