UNICOR: Prison Sweatshop or Under-Exploited Tool for Rehabilitation?

By Christopher Zoukis / Blog Critics

Each weekday morning at the Leavenworth minimum security federal prison camp in Kansas, more than 130 of the camp’s inmates troop off to work at the institution’s Electronic Recycling Factory.  For many, this is the first real job that they have ever held.

The Leavenworth Electronics Recycling Factory is a part of Federal Prison Industries, Inc., better known as UNICOR, a wholly-owned government corporation operated within the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  Founded in 1934, UNICOR’s objectives are to provide meaningful work for federal prison inmates, to provide vocational training and establish good work habits, and to bring in revenue for the Bureau.  That revenue is intended to ensure that UNICOR is at least self-sustaining, and hopefully making a profit.

Across the federal prison system inmates at 80 factories in 65 prisons make military uniforms and other garments, body armor, desks, storage cabinets, awnings, and solar panels, operate print shops, and even sort clothes hangers.  Some of these operations provide meaningful vocational and workplace skills that will help the inmates to find employment once they are released from custody, while others are mindless, repetitive jobs which many on the outside regard as indefensible slave labor.  In order not to interfere with private commerce, UNICOR’s goods and services are a required “first source” for  federal agencies, and its charter limits its sales to federal or state governments, although this is not always the case.

The Department of Defense has long been UNICOR’s biggest customer, accounting for around half of the $750 million annual sales.  The downsizing of the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, together with major budget cuts, has meant that the Department of Defense’s spending on UNICOR goods and services has fallen by a third, from $536 million in 2007 to $357 million in 2012.

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Businesses, Members of Congress Not Happy with UNICOR

By Derek Gilna

When a powerful U.S. Senator takes interest in an issue, even a bureaucratic government agency like the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) pays attention.

Kurt Wilson, an executive with American Apparel, Inc., an Alabama company that makes military uniforms, and Michael Marsh of Kentucky-based Ashland Sales and Service Co., found that out after they learned that UNICOR, which runs prison industry programs for the BOP, was considering bidding on contracts for business that their companies already had. A public statement from U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, led UNICOR to change its mind.

Like many other initiatives of the federal government, UNICOR, formally known as Federal Prison Industries, Inc., started off as well-intentioned. Prisoners earning from $.23 to $1.15 an hour are trained to work in factories supervised by BOP staff, where in theory they learn job skills that will help them find employment following their release. However, UNICOR has become not only a job training program but a manufacturing behemoth that employs some 12,300 prisoners and made approximately $606 million in gross revenue in fiscal year 2012 – yet still reported a net loss of $28 million. [See: PLN, Nov. 2013, p.52].

With that kind of size, purchasing power and cheap prisoner labor, it is almost impossible for small businesses to compete. Indeed, several companies have lost federal contracts due to competition from UNICOR, resulting in job losses among freeworld workers. [See: PLN, Feb. 2013, p.42]. This has made some business owners nervous – and angry.

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UNICOR Federal Prison Industries, Inc

To explain precisely what UNICOR is and how it functions Prison Law Blog offers the following information.  This information is from the Bureau of Prisons website:  It provides the best and most succinct explanation of UNICOR. What Is UNICOR? “Federal Prison Industries (commonly referred to as FPI or by its trade name UNICOR) is a

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UNICOR in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

UNICOR — also known as Federal Prison Industries, Inc. — is a government-owned corporation operated within the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).  It utilizes factory plant managers who oversee inmate workers to produce products and provide services.  For the most part, UNICOR products and services are utilized to lower costs for state and federal agencies,

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Evaluating the Concept of Employment in Prisons: An Idea From Across the Pond

On February 23, 2013, The Economist published a very thought-provoking article entitled “Jobs in Jail: Remunerative Justice.”  This article was about England’s system of putting the incarcerated to work in factory settings within their prisons.  These factories are owned by private entities, not the British government.  According to the article, this is a position supported by both

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In Search of Funding for Post-Secondary Prison Programs — FPI Scholarships

By George Hook

Again, I did not want to blow the whistle.  I just wanted to search for funding available to federal prisoners for post-secondary education courses.  While searching for post-secondary programs I also came upon this statement made by the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) in Bridges to Opportunity–Federal Adult Education Programs For the 21st Century Report to the President on Executive Order 13445, U.S. Department of Education Office of Vocational and Adult Education, dated July 2008  as the only example of funding, at p.18:

“ProgramNationwide.  Federal Prison Industries (FPI) is a self-sustaining government corporation that awards scholarships for postsecondary study to selected, qualified inmates working in FPI factories. FPI allocates a portion of revenues generated from the sale of its products and services to federal agencies for the FPI scholarship program. Eligible inmates working at prison factories can take postsecondary or occupational training courses with accredited colleges, universities or technical schools.  Federal inmates are not eligible to receive Pell grants to fund postsecondary studies. The FPI scholarship program allows federal inmates the opportunity to take postsecondary or occupational training courses in order to acquire skills, degrees, or certificates that will enhance their post-release employability.

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UNICOR: Government and Private Contracts

By Christopher Zoukis (

Federal Prison Industries, known as UNICOR to most, is the for-hire prison labor arm of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Inside the prisons UNICOR is known as the best employment that one can hope to obtain. This is because they pay the best wages; $0.23 to $1.15 an hour plus $0.20 an hour for premium consideration when it is warranted; basically slave wages. Yet, slave wages paid for hours and hours of work in prison makes you a big spender. This just goes to show what the rest of the prison population gets paid; $5.25 a month at a minimum. Outside the prisons, UNICOR is known as the private industry’s darling. After all, where inside the United States can you find a factory staffed by persons who are willing to work for less than a quarter an hour? Seems illegal, doesn’t it?

UNICOR was first started with the hope of providing viable employment skills to the incarcerated population. They started with two main ideas: One, an occupied prisoner is easier to manage than one that is idle. Two, that they could provide manufacturing services to government cheaply under the guise of providing employment skills to their workers. One of the chief tenets here was that UNICOR would not interfere with the private industry.

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FCI Petersburg's UNICOR Announces Scholarship Program

By Christopher Zoukis

For the past several years I have been seeking information on the UNICOR Scholarship Program offered at FCI Petersburg.  And for years I, and other UNICOR workers, have received a cold shoulder from FCI Petersburg UNICOR staff.  They have refused to provide information concerning how to apply for the scholarship program, what the program consists of, the requirements thereof, and where to find additional information concerning it.

Up until today, I’ve only been able to locate two sources of limited information concerning the program: 1) an inmate who is in the program, but was unwilling to supply myself with any sort of documentation concerning it and 2) referrals to it — and program directions — which can be located in Federal Bureau of Prisons’ national policy.  Essentially I, and the vast majority of other inmates at FCI Petersburg, have been stonewalled by UNICOR staff which resulted in the vast majority of UNICOR inmates not being able to apply for this scholarship program.  Today that changed.

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