Mar 112011
 

American workers find themselves in an increasingly uncomfortable squeeze.

On one hand, public officials demonize organized labor, as seen in Wisconsin and several other midwestern states.

On the other hand, the growing trend in outsourcing keeps jobs closer to home, but with equally disastrous results, paying prisoners an average of less than a dollar an hour for work once done by decently paid workers on the outside.

Prisoners aren’t just making license plates anymore. They do everything from manufacturing plastic cups and furniture to operating call centers.

In the most recent example of this disturbing trend, prisoners are apparently building electronic parts for Patriot missiles.

The story was laid out by Jason Rorhlich on Minyanville, where he displays all of the promotional material by the firm, which obtained the contract to have the prisoners do the work. The firm, called Unicor, is a giant, wholly-owned subsidiary of the federal government originally formed during the Depression. It operates more than 100 factories in federal prisons and employs about 17,000 inmates, or about 11 percent of the federal prison population.

Unicor even received nearly $1 million in stimulus money, earning the ire of some on the outside who said they could have used the work.

After Rohrlich’s piece appeared, and it was picked up by Wired, Lockheed’s PR machine spun into action, denying that prisoner labor was used in building the Patriot, acknowledging for Wired that prisoners only worked on Raytheon’s ignition system for the missile. Which left Rohrlich and readers scratching their heads, given how hard Unicor has been bragging about its work on the missiles themselves. Does Unicor, an arm of the federal government, not know what its employees/prisoners are up to? Or is Lockheed working on some pretty lame damage control? I hope the missiles work better than the public relations does.

As Wired points out, the Patriot is just one in a long string of weapons work that Unicor has done, including work on F-15 and F-16 fighter jets and Cobra helicopters.
This week, Unicor scored a $20 million, no-bid contract to build bulletproof vests. All I can is say is they must have connections, since the last time they built body armor for the Army, it didn’t work so well. Last year the Army had to recall 44,000 Unicor-built helmets because they failed ballistics testing.

This is not about trashing prison training and rehabilitation efforts, which should be continued because the evidence shows that they work in reducing recidivism. But can’t our public officials find a way to do it without undermining the middle class, which they all claim to be so devoted to?

 

 

 

 

About Martin Berg

Martin Berg, WheresOurMoney.org editor, is a veteran journalist.

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