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

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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.

unicor

Image courtesy pyersedandridge.com

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 reality.

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.

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 seven percent. Despite having around 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, and makes a 52 percent profit, up from 33 percent in 2011, making it the second most profitable of the federal electronics recycling factories. Among them the inmates process around four million pounds of discarded computers, printers, and fax machines each year. The constituent materials, once sorted, are sold to external recyclers.

UNICOR could be a huge 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 his or her chance of obtaining a job outside of prison by 28 percent. According to Prison Education News, employment is one of the most important 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 Bureau has so far made little real effort in this regard.

Once the Bureau really does get serious about rehabilitation, evidence from other countries shows that UNICOR, perhaps in collaboration with external companies, could be a major tool in the rehabilitation of 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 how to lay tracks, then employs inmates when they are released. The National Grid, which operates the country’s electricity distribution network, trains offenders through day-release and again employs them at the conclusion of their sentences.

Ten years of experience with programs such as those 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 so many ways. If only there were the vision and leadership to realize that great potential.

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About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Education Behind Bars (Sunbury Press, 2012), the Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2014), and the forthcoming College for Convicts (McFarland and Company, 2015) and United Blood Nation: The Story of the East Coast Bloods (Headpress, 2015). He can be found online at Prisoneducation.com, Prisonlawblog.com, and christopherzoukis.com.
  • Tom A

    I take issue with Unicor’s presence in industrial sewing. The sewing industry in the US has been decimated by foreign competition since the 90’s. Much of what remains is done on behalf of the US military. However, a major chunk of those opportunities are taken away from the remaining private sewing operations and handed over to Unicor.

    If Unicor’s mission is to give inmates relevant skills in the job market, why do they teach people to sew? The number of sewing machine operator positions in the US over the past 20 years has shrunk incredibly fast. inmates won’t be leaving prison and taking sewing jobs because they’re not out there. Times change, and my belief is that Unicor stays in the sewing business only because it started into it a long time ago. But when their continued presence has such a detrimental effect on the few sewing companies that still remain, they should move on to other things. Things more relevant to finding a job in the 21st century.