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UNICOR Robs Jobs from Private Sector; Prisoners Sue Over Working Conditions

It is already hard enough for free world workers to hold down a job without having to compete with UNICOR, the prison labor arm of the federal Bureau of Prisons. But that is exactly what a group of more than 300 Pennsylvania employees are going through. The workers, employed by private defense contractors, face layoffs as UNICOR expands its market share of helmet production for the Department of Defense (DOD).

Created in 1934 with the aim of rehabilitating federal prisoners through work opportunities, UNICOR uses cut-rate prison slave labor to provide services and manufacture furniture, clothing and other assorted goods for the federal gov-ernment. Prisoners are paid as little as $.23 an hour and sometimes work twelve- to fourteen-hour shifts.

In late 2007, UNICOR upped its market share of producing military helmets to 50 percent by invoking the mandatory source rule, which requires federal agencies to first turn to UNICOR when making contracting decisions. As a result, more than 300 workers who make helmets for private defense contractors like BAE Systems in Pennsylvania may lose their jobs.

“I’m outraged,” said U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski, who represents the 11th District of Pennsylvania. “BAE Systems is be-ing forced to cut back its workforce during a time when families are already strapped for money. We must ensure that bet-ter-qualified, law abiding citizens continue to produce these needed helmets for our troops abroad.”

Rep. Kanjorski and several other federal lawmakers are trying to force the DOD to procure competitive bids for any product when at least five percent of that product is provided by UNICOR. It is often possible for private businesses to offer lower bids for products and services even though UNICOR pays its prisoner employees pennies an hour due to UNICOR’s bloated bureaucracy.

Congress came close to raising the wages for UNICOR workers to minimum wage in 2004, with the passage of the Federal Prison Industries Competition in Contracting Act in the House, but the bill failed to pass in the Senate.

More recently, on October 8, 2008, UNICOR was sued by a group of federal prisoners who worked at a factory in a medium-security facility in Beaumont, Texas, producing military helmets. The prison was evacuated after it was struck by Hurricane Rita in 2005. The lawsuit alleges that the UNICOR workers were returned to the facility two weeks later before it was ready for occupancy; the walls were covered with black mold, and food and water were scarce.

They were returned early, according to the complaint, because UNICOR was falling behind on its helmet contract. The suit al-leges that the prisoners were “constantly ridiculed, tormented, and yelled at because of deadlines on million-dollar contracts.” They worked 14-hour days during the first week, which then dropped to 12-hour days.

“At the end of the work day, [UNICOR workers] would come back to their cells with sore and aching feet, blisters on their hands ... feeling totally exhausted and in many cases, traumatized by the ordeal,” the lawsuit states. None however appear to have quit or otherwise refused to produce war material for the Pentagon even under these conditions.

The plaintiffs are seeking damages for negligence, coercion, malice, and cruel and unusual punishment. The litigation is ongoing. See: Trojcak v. United States, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Tex.), Case No. 1:08-cv-00593-MAC-KFG.

PLN has previously reported on other onerous aspects of UNICOR, including the exposure of both prisoners and staff to toxic materials in electronics recycling programs. [See: PLN, Jan. 2009, p.1]. A federal lawsuit filed over the toxic exposure is still pending, and on April 23, 2009, six additional plaintiffs sought leave to join the suit. See: Smith v. United States, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Fla.), Case No. 5:08-cv-00084-RS/AK.

Sources:,, Houston Press

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Related legal cases

Trojcak v. United States

Smith v. United States