The debate still simmers over whether prisons should be siphoning away jobs at much lower wages that could be filled by those who need them during the nation's toughest period of unemployment in decades, the Associated Press reports. Congressional Republicans, a few Democrats and private-industry critics want to clamp down on Unicor, the trade name for Federal Prison Industries. Almost 13,000 inmates working in federal lockups for a few dollars a day make everything from military uniforms to office furniture to electrical parts that are sold exclusively to federal agencies.
With annual revenues of $900 million last year, Unicor is the federal government's 36th-largest vendor. Corrections officials say the program teaches prisoners invaluable job skills and personal discipline that help cut down on their return to prison. Inmates who work in the program are 24 percent less likely to commit more crimes than other prisoners after being released. Critics say the program undercuts private companies because of lower operating costs and laws that require federal agencies to use inmate-produced products when able. Private groups supporting limits on Unicor's operation have documented only 300 layoffs directly linked to private companies losing work to federal prisoners, all at four textile plants in Alabama and Tennessee.