Prison laborers get jobs from stimulus

Unicor logo


Kai Ryssdal: The federal stimulus package that Congress passed back in February was really about one thing: jobs. Lots of 'em. The government is spending almost $800 billion to put Americans back to work. Today the White House said the stimulus bill has saved or created as many as two million jobs. A figure, it should be said, that is not universally accepted.

Karen Weise explains that who is getting those jobs can sometimes be surprising.

KAREN WEISE: Barges that float down the Mississippi River carry more than half of the nation's grain exports to the port of New Orleans.

ALAN DOOLEY: You could call it a waterborne interstate highway, if you would.

Alan Dooley is the spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers in St. Louis. The Army Corps operates a series of locks and dams that allow barges to maneuver down the river. And for the boats to do that safely, the area needs giant signs.

DOOLEY: These signs vary from the size that you might see along a hiking trail to the other extreme signs that are 30-feet long that are mounted on the locks and dams.

Some of the river's signs needed to be replaced, so the Army Corps dipped into its pot of federal stimulus funds. It bought $143,000 worth of signs from a company called Unicor.

But Unicor's not your typical sign company. It's run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and uses inmates to do its work. Unicor pays inmates an average of 93 cents an hour to make everything from office furniture to solar panels to signs. All told, Unicor has almost $900,000 in stimulus contracts so far.

NORMAN HAWKINS: We think it's terrible. There's too many people need a job, not the prisoners.

Norman Hawkins runs a sign company in Berkeley, Calif. He says, forget the prisons, his company could use the stimulus work.

HAWKINS: But then they go into sad math about oh, the poor guy, they've got nothing to do all day long, and we're tryin' to keep them busy. That's true, but why pick on people who are law-abiding citizens, though? Why take their income?

Hawkins is 89, and his father started their company over 60 years ago. Now, Hawkins Traffic Supply employs around 20 people in a shop right off Interstate 80.

HAWKINS: Matter of fact, when they opened this highway, we made the first signs for 'em.

Now, half of their business is from government contracts, but not from the Army Corps.

ALAN DOOLEY: It might be something that people might look at and say "Well, why would you employ people in a prison?"

The Army Corps' Alan Dooley.

DOOLEY: But the stimulus package does not exempt us from existing federal regulations.

And believe it or not, those regulations said the Army Corps had to give the sign contracts to Unicor. Now, those regulations are generally seen as a good thing; they're supposed to minimize fraud and waste. But in this case, the use of prison labor diverges from the goals of stimulating job creation.

STEVE ELLIS: It certainly is a head scratcher, I'll put it that way.

Steve Ellis is a vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-partisan government watchdog.

ELLIS: The idea that we are sending stimulus dollars to prison industries really flies in the face of the unemployment lines that we're seeing across the country.

Ellis realizes that Unicor's $900,000 worth of contracts is just a fraction of the overall stimulus program. But he says it's a good example of competing priorities in the stimulus. He says the program was supposed to create jobs, to create them quickly, and to improve the country's infrastructure. And it was supposed to do all of this while following the usual contracting guidelines to minimize waste.

Ellis says we just can't have it all.

The Army Corps' Dooley points out that at least some local employers will benefit from the sign project along the Mississippi.

DOOLEY: People are going to work to manufacture the material, and to deliver the signs and to install the signs.

Don't forget, inmates can't do all the work -- the part that has to happen outside prison walls.

I'm Karen Weise for Marketplace.

Log in to post4 Comments

How is it different from USA getting the signs made in China? Cheap labour and companies making profit.

Unfortunately Karen Weise and Steve Ellis have repeated terrible errors and misunderstandings about US inmates' needs to work. In fact, most inmates are parents, and there are more unsupported minor children of US inmates than inmates, so much so that inmate unemployment is a significant contributor to US child, female (mothers) and elderly (grandmother caregiver) poverty.

Excluding inmates from the legal labor force harms - does not help - the economy, but instead serves as severe unemployment. Considering that 1 of every 8 black men is now incarcerated, incarceration and unemployment during incarceration worse than decimate America's minority populated inner cities.

And finally, expelling these persons from the labor force harms the overall economy by reducing productivity, consumption, and the nation's global competitiveness, all the while increasing both the costs of crime, welfare, and associated social burdens.

Ms. Weise and Mr. Ellis, among others, would better serve both the public and most private interests, including of taxpayers, by supporting legitimate - and fair - labor force participation and inmates' financial responsibility to taxpayers, their victims, and their families rather than repeating grave and counterproductive misunderstandings.

There are legitimate objections to current inmate labor policies, and these objections need to be addressed. We would welcome their revisiting the issue more objectively.

Thank you.

Karen Weise's recent story about prisoners and federal stimulus funds caught my interest, but not because of the subject matter. Ms. Weise mentioned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers several times, six times simply as "the Army Corps."

Unless the Corps of Engineers has changed since I grew up in the Army 40 years ago, it is never called "the Army Corps." Doing so begs the question, "The Army Corps of what?" It is called either "the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers," "the Army Corps of Engineers," "the Corps of Engineers," or simply "the Engineers."

It would have made more sense to refer to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as "the funny buttons." My dad used to tease his Engineer friends about their uniform buttons, which have castles on them instead of the standard eagles. Dad called his Engineer friends "funny buttons," as in "A funny button and his wife are having dinner with us tomorrow."

As a former reporter, I would have thought Ms. Weise would check with her sources to find out how to refer to the Engineers on second mention. I'm also surprised that this passed Kai Ryssdal's scrutiny, what with his Navy background.

Maybe NPR should do a story about why the Engineers have funny buttons. That would be entertaining!

"Unicor pays inmates an average of 93 cents an hour..." What is the least that an inmate is paid by Unicor? The most an inmate would receive per hour is of interest (as well as what an inmate would do to garner a raise, if that's possible) and the profits of the corporation are of great interest. What share of this stimulus money ends up as profits to some non-inmates? Are there share holders who invest in Unicor that gain dividends out of the stimulus money contract for signs and whatever else?

Inmates can't go on strike, unionize, seek better working conditions, and they get no vacation pay or pensions. It's great for management to have an incarcerated work force, and the inmates have been paid as little as 38 cents an hour in the recent past, with some of that pay being taken to pay for room and board. It amounts to slave labor.
A significant portion of people in prison now have been falsely convicted, and the prisons are now profit centers for private corporations, even using inmates for phone solicitations, and hotel booking.

"All told, Unicor has almost $900,000 in stimulus contracts so far." Is more scheduled to go to them? Your report focused on how a small business person could be perturbed at this arrangement, costing them a chance at stimulus money, also torqued with the perception that non-lawabiding people gain in the largess. The real vexation is that this kind of arrangement drives wages down for people who are not incarcerated. When the aim is to maximize profits, what better way than for a company to use slave labor?

If the Federal Bureau of Prisons runs Unicor, is Unicor a part of the federal government, or is it a for-profit private enterprise that works under the auspices of the FBP?

With Generous Support From...