Prison labor is stealing jobs, some manufacturers say Federal inmate program is unfair, companies say


WASHINGTON -- With inmates at 72 federal prisons crafting hundreds of millions of dollars in pajamas, desk chairs and other products, manufacturers are complaining that prison labor is stealing jobs and profits.

The idea that some workers, whose taxes keep prisons operating, might lose their jobs because of prison labor "just doesn't sit well with us," said Douglas Brackett, executive vice president of the American Furniture Manufacturers Association in High Point, N.C.

Furniture makers especially have rallied around a bill introduced last month by Republican Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan that would stamp out an advantage enjoyed by Federal Prison Industries -- a requirement that federal agencies shop first with the inmate program, even though the goods are not always cheaper or better made.

"Plain and simple, [the program] takes job opportunities away from thousands of honest, hard-working Americans," Hoekstra said.

But advocates of the industry behind bars say it teaches inmates a skill, while helping to defray the cost of their incarceration. It also eases tensions made worse by crowding in federal penitentiaries, advocates say. Crowding in the prisons has nearly doubled since 1990, from 58,021 inmates to 101,648 as of last month, according to the Justice Department.

"If inmates sat around with nothing to do, we'd have a potentially very inflammatory situation," said Ira Kirschbaum, general counsel for FPI, the Bureau of Prisons' industrial conglomerate. The jobs program not only helps control and manage the inmate population, he said, "it's teaching a work ethic -- get up on time, work all day long, do a good job."

The program was launched in 1934 to teach inmates skills they could use after their release from prison. Private industry and labor unions initially supported it. But that support has waned as the program has grown.

More than 18,000 inmates earn about $1 an hour making furniture, uniforms, housewares and dozens of other items offered under the name UNICOR through catalogs to federal agencies. By law, the agencies are required to go to the prison program for those goods unless the company issues a waiver saying it cannot meet the procurer's requirements.

The program has generated about $600 million in gross sales so far this year. During one recent six-month period, FPI sold nearly $5 million in cabinets, lockers and shelving to the General Services Administration, more than $300,000 in draperies, awnings and shades to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and nearly $250,000 in night-vision equipment to the Department of Defense.

Despite the program's expansion, private industry still accounts for most of the federal government's purchases, said Steve Schwalb, FPI's chief executive officer. Last year, the government bought 18 percent of its office furniture from FPI and 82 percent from private companies, he said.

One maker of office furniture, Steelcase Inc., of Grand Rapids, Mich., estimated that the prison program has taken some of its business.

"We'd have another $7 million to $10 million in sales a year" if it weren't for the program, said Marsha Goodman, director of government market sales for Steelcase.

Pub Date: 11/18/97

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