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

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

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, 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. In contrast, others are mindless, repetitive jobs that many on the outside regard as indefensible slave labor. To avoid interfering 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. However, 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 and significant budget cuts have 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.

Such cuts have led to a downsizing of UNICOR. Originally planned to employ around 25 percent of the federal inmate population, it now employs barely 7 percent. Despite having about 12,500 employees earning only 23 cents to $1.15 per hour, UNICOR still averages $31 million in annual losses.

The Leavenworth Electronics Recycling Factory stands out in comparison to such poor overall performance. The factory employs almost a third of the prison camp’s 420 inmates. It makes a 52 percent profit, up from 33 percent in 2011, making it the second most profitable of the federal electronics recycling factories. The inmates process around four million pounds of discarded computers, printers, and fax machines yearly. The constituent materials, once sorted, are sold to external recyclers.

UNICOR could be a massive force for good within the federal prison system. The Bureau of Justice Assistance commissioned the RAND Corporation to review all existing studies of the value of education in America’s penal systems. The results of that meta-analysis, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education, published in 2013, showed that vocational training reduced an offender’s likelihood of returning to prison by 36 percent and increased their chance of obtaining a job outside prison by 28 percent. According to Prison Education News, employment is one of the most critical factors determining whether a prisoner will successfully reintegrate into society or return to prison. Around 80 percent of those who do return to prison are unemployed.

For the Federal Bureau of Prisons to hit its target UNICOR percentage, it would need to make a shift in mindset from merely warehousing inmates to actively rehabilitating them. Such a transformation is beginning in some state prisons, but the Federal Bureau of Prisons has so far made little real effort in this regard.

Once the Bureau gets serious about rehabilitation, evidence from other countries shows that UNICOR, perhaps in collaboration with external companies, could be an essential tool in rehabilitating offenders. In the United Kingdom, Timpson, a shoe-repair chain, sees working with prisoners as part of its social responsibility. It operates three training academies and three workshops in prisons, employs inmates allowed out on day release, and offers positions to many when they have completed their sentences. 

Railtrack, which runs Britain’s railway track infrastructure, operates in-prison training on laying tracks, then employs inmates when released. The National Grid, which operates the country’s electricity distribution network, trains offenders through day release and again employs them after their sentences. Ten years of experience with programs such as these suggest that they reduce the recidivism rate to about six percent, a far cry from the United States, where 43 to 52 percent of released prisoners are back behind bars within three years of release from correctional custody.

With the constant cycle of elections, undertaking real prison reform is difficult. Anything perceived as being softer on offenders is a notoriously hard sell. But it isn’t about being soft on prisoners; it’s about breaking cycles of crime, transforming lives, saving billions of dollars, and making our neighborhoods safer. Quality vocational training complemented by relevant in-prison work experience, ideally linked to job opportunities upon release, could be transformative in many ways. If only there were the vision and leadership to realize that great potential.

(First published by BlogCritics.org; used by permission)