Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

UNICOR Hogs Body Armor Market

In the July '96 issue of PLN we published "Furniture Manufacturers Threatened by UNICOR," an article about how Federal Prison Industries, Inc. (FPI, which uses the trade name UNICOR), dramatically expanded its "market share" of furniture sold to the military and government agencies and how the expanded use of federal prisoner slave labor drives free-world manufacturers out of business.

UNICOR is at it again. This time, though, they have dramatically increased their "market share" in the sale of protective clothing (i.e. bullet-proof vests and body armor) to law enforcement agencies. UNICOR does not expand its market share through free-enterprise competition. They decide how much of the market they want, some superficial hearings are held, then FPI's five-member Board of Directors grants the market share request. Law enforcement agencies are then often forced to buy UNICOR body armor in order for FPI to maintain its target market share.

President Clinton promised in a State of the Union address that "those who work hard and play by the rules will be rewarded." The way UNICOR unilaterally dictates how much market share they will have -- regardless of competition, price, quality, or the purchasing preferences of its law enforcement customers -- is certainly not "playing fair." They are rewarded nonetheless.

According to FPI spokesman Robert C. Grieser, "FPI started production of protective clothing in 1993. FPI received several contracts that year; however, much of the shipments were not made until 1995. As a result, FPI's sales of protective clothing increased from $371,000 in FY 1993 to an estimated $18 million in FY 1995."

Prior to 1995, FPI was "authorized" by its five-member board to capture 8 percent of the protective clothing market. By mid-1995 they already had 10 percent of the market. They then requested to expand their share to 25 percent. Hearings were held and voluminous testimony was presented by apparel manufacturers and law enforcement representatives.

David E. Bernard, National Vice- President of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers said in a memo to FPI officials that, "Soft body armor is extremely tricky to manufacture, and requires very stringent quality control..." and expressed a "fundamental philosophical problem with federal prisoners manufacturing life support products for the community that incarcerated them in the first place. This gives them the opportunity to 'get back' at law enforcement by sabotaging these products."

Marcia T. Rounsaville, a spokesperson for the Industrial Fabrics Association International, said that, "FPI seems oblivious to the fact that no one company in the private sector has more than a 10-percent market share in the production of protective clothing. However, under the [FPI] staff's plan, the FPI would be making bullet-proof vests, bomb disposal blankets, and the like to the tune of a 25-percent market share -- thus dwarfing those private sector employers on whom working women and men depend."

Despite hearing voluminous negative testimony from both apparel manufacturers and law enforcement, the FPI board formally decided on February 6, 1996, to grant the requested 25-percent market share mandate for UNICOR-manufactured protective clothing. In its written decision, the FPI board said, "The written and oral comments [of apparel manufacturers and law enforcement] were helpful in developing a clearer picture of the industry and its concerns."

What was clearer to FPI board members, however, is that the federal prison population is mushrooming and the federal Bureau of Prisons requires more UNICOR production facilities to keep those idle hands busy. Therefore they authorized increased production of protective clothing to a maximum of $222 million in sales spread over the next five years, an average of $44.4 million a year. The FPI board concluded its written decision with: "The Board also notes for the record that, while FPI must be self-sufficient, the principal emphasis of increased sales should be the creation of additional inmate jobs, which teach work skills and enhance the prospects for employment and successful reintegration upon release.

But as American Apparel Manufacturers Association President Larry K. Martin points out, "The likelihood someone leaving prison will find a job in the apparel industry is slim." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures reveal that employment in the apparel industry has plummeted from a 1973 level of 1,438,000 U.S. workers to 910,000 in 1995. Recent U.S. Census figures reveal that since 1988 the unemployment rate in the apparel industry has averaged 9.8 percent, a rate 60 percent higher than the national average unemployment of 6.1 percent over the same period of time.

It would appear that federal UNICOR slaves are the only sector of the apparel job market enjoying growth in employment. Of course, women and children in Third World maquilladora sweat shops are also enjoying similar employment gains. Perhaps federal prisoners can move to El Salvador when they get out of prison and look for a job?

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login