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UNICOR Wins $20 Million No-Bid Body Armor Contract

On March 9, 2011, the U.S. Army announced that it had awarded a $20 million no-bid contract to Federal Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR, to fulfill an order for body armor.

The U.S. military is one of UNICOR’s top customers; in addition to making furniture, clothing and other equipment for the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), UNICOR has received numerous military contracts over the years. Apparently the Army has not been deterred by the recall of 44,000 UNICOR-manufactured combat helmets in May 2010 after they failed ballistic testing. [See: PLN, Jan. 2011, p.20].

The Army’s current order in the no-bid UNICOR contract is for the manufacture of bulletproof “outer tactical vests,” apparently to be supplied to Pakistani military authorities.

The UNICOR plant at the federal prison in Yazoo City, Mississippi is slated to produce the vests. At that facility, UNICOR prisoners earn from $.23 to $1.15 per hour. Approximately 70 BOP prisons employ around 20,000 prisoners in industry programs. On its website UNICOR touts the fact that it manufactures five different types of body armor, which cost between $170 and $325 each.

UNICOR also claims that it has supplied parts for F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, as well as the Cobra attack helicopter. The agency further states that it “supplies numerous electronic components and services for guided missiles, including the Patriot Advanced Capability Missile, also known as the PAC-3.”

Lockheed Martin spokesman Craig Vanbebber disputed that last claim, terming it “completely false.” He wrote that “at no time were parts from UNICOR ever used in the PAC-3,” and that UNICOR only supplies parts for the larger Patriot system that is put together by another defense contractor, Raytheon. Vanbebber also stated the missiles themselves are not made using prison labor.

Despite the protestations of Lockheed Martin, Eric Piepert, a UNICOR salesman who markets electronics to the government, maintained that “We’re not making anything up. We make wiring harnesses for the military, this being one of them – the Patriot missile.”
The underlying question is why UNICOR continues to do business with the U.S. military, considering its previous problems with quality assurance and recalls, and why the agency is engaged in apparent competition with the private defense industry.


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