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UNICOR-Made Military Helmets Recalled, Production Suspended

The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting an investigation into military contracts issued to ArmorSource, an Ohio company, and then subcontracted to Federal Prison Industries (FPI), commonly known as UNICOR, following the recall of 44,000 potentially defective combat helmets. According to U.S. Representative Chris Carney, “FPI has not met protective standards, nor has it met required deadlines in its production of these crucial helmets ... and we can’t wait any longer to protect our troops.”

The 44,000 helmets, which were recalled on May 14, 2010, were part of a 600,000 helmet contract for the U.S. Army and 100,000 lightweight helmets for the U.S. Marine Corps. The contracts are now in question as a result of the recall, as the helmets failed ballistics testing.

At around the same time that Rep. Carney added an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Bill that would force UNICOR to submit to competitive bidding, UNICOR suspended helmet production and agreed to waive preferential status that gives it the right of first refusal on U.S. government contracts. “Our military men and women deserve only the best equipment and it has become clear that Federal Prison Industries cannot meet the standards required in manufacturing helmets,” Rep. Carney stated.

It is not widely known that UNICOR utilizes poorly paid and often indifferently supervised prisoners to manufacture not only goods for use in the federal prison system, but also products that are in direct competition with private-sector businesses. In the past UNICOR has obtained multiple contracts to make ballistic helmets for the U.S. military, and in 2007 it was awarded a non-competitive Army contract pursuant to a provision in federal procurement regulations.

UNICOR was awarded another non-competitive contract in 2008, which comprised 100% of the helmet needs for the U.S. Marine Corps and effectively shut out private industry.
According to Rep. Carney’s office, in both cases UNICOR’s products failed to pass first article testing – the process that is designed to ensure the equipment meets specifications – and after an 18-month delay, not a single acceptable helmet had been delivered.

“Because the inmates were making the helmets, the cost was down, but the main concern was the product being substandard,” said Rep. Carney. He also was critical of the fact that UNICOR was awarded the contracts during a time when the industrial and manufacturing sections of the U.S. economy were shedding private-sector jobs. “At a time when our economy is rebounding, there are other private firms eager and able to take on this important work, which will lead to the creation of crucial jobs in the United States,” Rep. Carney noted.

Another problematic issue with the UNICOR helmet recall was that the military was unable to track where the recalled helmets had been sent. “We don’t know where they are,” said Brigadier Gen. Pete Fuller. “So they could be on some soldiers’ head in either Iraq or Afghanistan. They could also be anywhere else in the world.”

In calling for an investigation by the Department of Justice, Rep. Carney stated, “It is time to more thoroughly examine the awarding of military contracts to Federal Prison Industries. This is the latest in a series of troubling developments with regard to the production of life-saving equipment by [FPI] and we cannot let it go unresolved.”

Sources: CNN, Fox News,, U.S. Rep. Chris Carney press release

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