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Federal Prisoners Making Solar Cells

Spire Corp., a solar cell manufacturer, has inked a deal worth approximately $55 million with UNICOR, the prison labor arm of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), to establish a solar module manufacturing program at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Otisville, New York.

Under the terms of the deal, Spire will provide UNICOR with $55 million worth of solar cells. UNICOR is on the hook for all other costs associated with setting up the manufacturing program. UNICOR intends to sell the solar cells produced by prisoners to government agencies.

The stated goal of the arrangement is to provide prisoners with “green” technology training. However, critics have raised concerns that such training could eventually lead to ex-prisoners getting jobs that require them to visit people’s homes to install solar panels.

The deal for Spire could not come soon enough, as the company faced possible delisting from the NASDAQ stock exchange. Spire was notified by NASDAQ in late 2009 that it would be delisted unless its market valuation rose above $50 million.

Spire announced in October 2010 that the UNICOR contract had been reduced to $36.1 million. No reason for the decrease was provided, though it may be related to UNICOR’s budget cuts and workforce reductions. [See: PLN, Dec. 2010, p.44].


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