UNICOR in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

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, but private companies — such as Target — also utilize UNICOR’s services.  UNICOR employs approximately 18 percent of physically able federal prisoners.  UNICOR plants are located inside federal prisons.

Inmate Hiring and Eligibility

UNICOR hires federal inmates based on three basic categories: 1) inmates who owe substantial financial obligations to the courts, i.e., fines and restitution, 2) those with prior UNICOR experience, and 3) general inmates without any UNICOR experience.  Essentially, inmates are pulled from all categories collectively, but a higher ratio is selected from the first category, then the second, then the third during each hiring period.  These hiring periods are based upon the needs of each UNICOR plant and usually involve groups of inmates (e.g., 15 or 20 inmates might be hired at one time, not 2 or 3).  Average waiting times for hiring can vary, with some in the two-year range.  Thus, inmates are advised to apply for UNICOR employment as soon as possible.

Inmates who owe court-ordered restitution or fines often participate in the Inmate Financial Responsibility Program (“IFRP”).  These inmates are under the obligation to make a specified monetary contribution towards monies owed on a revolving basis (either every month or each quarter).  The standard UNICOR contract devotes half of the inmate’s wages to the outstanding obligation.  These inmates receive priority hiring status.

Inmates with prior UNICOR experience — either at the UNICOR plant at issue or at another UNICOR plant — are in the second category.  They have already proven themselves to be dedicated and trained workers.  Note that only inmates who left UNICOR employment on good terms qualify for this category.  Those that were fired from previous UNICOR employment are placed in the no UNICOR experience category since they are less reliable.

The final category is those with no UNICOR experience.  Inmates in this category are not a hiring priority.

Generally speaking, UNICOR plant managers will accept a select amount of inmates from each category when they are hiring new workers.  For example, they might hire 5 in the first category, 4 in the second, and 3 in the third.  Some draw from need or split the ratio evenly.  Thus, a specific category of applicants doesn’t have to be depleted prior to applicants from other categories being hired.

There are two groups that are handled differently by UNICOR.  Deportable aliens are excluded from UNICOR employment altogether.  Those without a high school diploma or GED are generally not hired by UNICOR.  If they are, they are required to work half days and go to GED classes the other half of the day.  To enhance productivity, some UNICOR facilities employ a school room within the UNICOR plant to allow UNICOR employees to seek a GED in a more expedient fashion.

Types of Work

UNICOR’s work is varied.  The literature states that UNICOR is in the business of manufacturing textiles, electronics, furniture, and metals.  It also states that UNICOR operates graphic design/printing, services (e.g., call centers/help desks), and distributing warehouse operations.  Available work depends on the contracts which UNICOR signs with both governmental agencies and private businesses.

As an example, the UNICOR plant at Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg — a medium-security federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia — is presented.  At this UNICOR plant, inmates sort clothing hangers for commercial retailers (e.g., Target).  A number of inmates are employed as clothing hanger sorters (who sort clothes hangers by size), others as clerks (who engage in clerical and secretarial tasks), others as forklift operators, and still others who have miscellaneous duties.  As shown, even a simple operation — that of sorting clothes hangers by size — can provide a variety of working experiences and training.

At other facilities, inmates perform more complicated tasks.  At USP Allenwood, they make office furniture, some of it for upper-level government applications.  At USP McCreary, inmates edit and process U.S. Patent Office applications.

UNICOR Pay Scale

One reason federal inmates desire UNICOR employment is that it compensates them much better than most work details in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  Most inmates make in the $10-$20 range per month (for 40 hours of recorded work).  Maintenance pay (the lowest level) pays $5.25 per month.  UNICOR wages are substantially better.  They are as follows:

  • Premium One:  $1.35 per hour
  • Grade One:  $1.15 per hour
  • Grade Two:  $0.92
  • Grade Three:  $0.69
  • Grade Four:  $0.46*
  • Grade Five:  $0.23

*Grade Four pay is the highest level of compensation allowed for inmates who lack a GED or high school diploma.

Actual compensation policies depend upon the local UNICOR facility, but there are several general rules of thumb that govern compensation.  For example, the longer the inmate works at the particular UNICOR facility, the more they are compensated via longevity bonuses applied to the hourly rate.  The same is true of those who are more productive, who also receive bonuses.  And clear conduct also assists eligible inmates in climbing the UNICOR compensation ladder in an expedient manner.

Benefits of UNICOR Employment

From the inmate’s perspective, UNICOR employment retains several weighty benefits.  To start, the enhanced compensation UNICOR affords is a significant motivational factor for those who have nothing.  The long hours allow inmates to lose themselves in their work and thus make the time pass seemingly faster.  And they also receive valued work experience by showing up to work, committing themselves to the work at hand, working in a safe environment, and gaining valuable workplace and interpersonal skills.

Disadvantages of UNICOR Employment

The only real downside to UNICOR employment appears to be the lifestyle change that is seemingly required of UNICOR employees.  Since UNICOR plants are engaged in operations year-round, the inmates assigned to that work detail often find that they are working as opposed to engaging in other tasks.  When overtime is taken into account, inmates could literally be sleeping, eating, and working.  While not a bad consequence for most inmates, it can be problematic for those who enjoy non-work activities (e.g., writing, playing sports, etc.).  UNICOR employment is both a commitment and a lifestyle.  Some enjoy this, and some do not.