Tag Archives: Army Combat Uniforms (ACU)

Federal Prison Industries Erodes Clothing and Textile Industrial Base; by jonathandouglaslong

Did you know that even though DoD contracts contain a clause that prohibits manufactures from employing prison labor (such as China) that Federal law requires the DoD to procure certain clothing and textile (C&T) items such as helmets and uniforms from Federal Prison Industries (FPI). According to the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA), approximately 19% of all Army Combat Uniforms (ACU) are produced by Federal prisoners.
Should Federal Prison Industries continue as a mandatory source for Army Combat Helmets (ACH) and Army Combat Uniforms (ACU)? Why should 6,505 federal convicts be fully employed in regional areas of 10% or more unemployment?
This is the question put directly to both Senate and Congressional staffers during a recent AAFA visit to Capitol Hill. In almost all cases, staffers were amazed to learn that much of our military gear is made by federal prisoners. In fact, according to the FPI Annual Report from 2009, prisoners achieved $262.7M in sales in the Clothing and Textiles category earning $36M in profits ($60M in 2008). The question on everyone’s mind is that given prisoners are only paid pennies per hour, who is reaping the benefits of these $36M in earnings? The question from the tax payer’s mind is simple – wouldn’t it be better for the $262.7M in sales to be pushed into the free enterprise market and potentially re-employ the 6,505 tax paying, sewing and manufacturing people who may be unemployed today?
The other question is a matter of quality assurance in the personal protective products made by UNICOR. From the FPI website “UNICOR also produces body armor that meets National Institute of Justice (NIJ) standards, as well as a wide range of ballistic products for military applicants.” Unfortunately these products do not meet NIJ standards given the recent recall of 44,000 Army Combat Helmets. The Army and the prime contact holder Armor Source both confirmed that UNICOR, also called Federal Prison Industries, manufactured all 44,000 of the recalled helmets.
The stated purpose of the FPI program, again from the FPI web site is “. . . not about business, but instead, about inmate release preparation…. helping offenders acquire the skills necessary to successfully make that transition from prison to law-abiding, contributing members of society. The production of items and provision of services are merely by-products of those efforts.” I wonder how the clothing and textile $96M profit over the last two years really helped prisoners acquire job skills.
The Industrial Base and overall employment of textile, apparel, and furnishings workers is expected to decline rapidly through 2018 from 212,400 jobs in the year 2008 to 140,900 jobs by the year 2018; a loss of 71,500 jobs. Specific rehabilitation by the FPI program in the C&T industry is for sewing machine operators which is expected to decline rapidly by 34 percent (http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos233.htm#outlook). Question – why is the government taking potential jobs from workers who could be employed today, to train and rehabilitate prisoners in a declining job field with little hope for a job when released from prison?
Wouldn’t the government be better served by focusing on the areas of high future job growth? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the top ten following occupations requiring only on-the-job training or work experience, than all other occupations with similar requirements will grow the fastest, through 2018. Home Health Aides growth 50 percent; Home Care Aides 46 percent; Physical Therapist Aides 36 percent; Dental Assistants 36 percent; Medical Assistants 34 percent; Self-Enrichment Teachers 32 percent; Government Compliance Officers 31 percent; Occupational Therapist Aides 31 percent; Pharmacy Technician 31 percent; and Medical Secretaries 27 percent.
Now – granted, some of these occupations may not be a good fit because they require background and security assessments to deal with personal data. This doesn’t change the fact that these are the greatest growth potential job fields and therefore have the greatest rehabilitation and reemployment potential for prisoners over through 2018. The Department of Justice, which oversees the FPI program, must get creative in determining how to really best support rehabilitation of prisoners and not just push inmates into labor intensive jobs like clothing and textiles because FPI can make significant profits.
There is a current amendment offered by Representative Walter B. Jones (NC) included in the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act (HR 5136) which attempts to get at the question of unfairly controlling market share. The amendment requires FPI to follow the existing rules. It is neither REP Jones nor the AAFA’s intent to cancel the rehabilitation efforts of FPI but to roll back FPI’s market share as required by law in product areas where they exceed 5%. The 5% cap is already included in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2008 (Public Law 110-18). The point now is to control FPI’s appetite for growth in clothing and textiles beyond the 5% limitation – for example pulling back 10 – 12% of ACU production and pushing that production back into the private industrial base to increase job growth.
I believe this is a step in the right direction by Congress and bringing the aggressive nature of FPI to the attention of the Secretary of Defense. It seems that holding FPI to the already defined 5% cap is right. However, the larger questions remain as to why doesn’t the Congress push the 6,505 prisoner jobs into private industry to provide more employment opportunity? Further, why does the Federal government prohibit contractors from using prison labor when the US government mandates that percentages of all Federal contracts be set aside for US prison labor? And last, what is the message that we are sending to both our troops and to our allies when the soldier, sailors, marines, and airman who deploy to defend our values of freedom and democracy are wearing uniforms made by US federal prisoners?

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