Skip navigation

UNICOR’s Manufacture of Defective Military Helmets Criticized

by Derek Gilna

The Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released a report in August 2016 that was sharply critical of ArmorSource LLC and its subcontractor, Federal Prison Industries (FPI), better known as UNICOR, for the manufacture of defective combat helmets for the U.S. military. Despite evidence of negligence and poor supervision and inspections, the DOJ declined to prosecute.

UNICOR, the federal prison system’s industry program that provides jobs and vocational training for prisoners, has come under criticism for providing insufficient training, using antiquated machinery and having indifferent supervision, resulting in inferior products. Further, prisoners’ rights advocates claim the use of low-cost prison labor amounts to exploitation. Prison Legal News has previously reported on problems surrounding UNICOR’s helmet manufacturing program. [See: PLN, Jan. 2011, p.20].

According to the DOJ, in 2008 UNICOR received a subcontract from ArmorSource to produce 23,000 combat helmets at a cost of $229 to $239 each, for a total of more than $23 million. UNICOR made an initial delivery of 3,000 helmets from an FPI program at a prison in Beaumont, Texas. “However [they] did not receive payment for ... 3,000 helmets because more than half of them were subsequently determined to be defective, and all 23,000 helmets were ultimately quarantined,” the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) stated in its report, as they “posed a potential safety risk” to American troops.

The OIG was most critical of the slipshod inspection methods used by UNICOR and ArmorSource that appeared designed to mislead the military about the quality of the prisoner-manufactured helmets. Investigations by the OIG and the Defense Criminal Investigative Service “found that [UNICOR] pre-selected helmets for inspection, even though the ... contract required helmets to be selected randomly, and substituted helmets to pass testing. The investigation also found that manufacturing documents were altered by inmates at the direction of ... staff that falsely indicated helmets passed inspection and met contract specifications ... at least in one instance an inspector certified the lots as being inspected over a fax machine.”

Further, the report noted that “A surprise inspection by OIG and military personnel on January 26, 2010, discovered inmates at the Beaumont FPI facility openly using improvised tools on the [ ] helmets, damaging the helmets’ ballistic material, creating the potential for the tools’ use as weapons in the prison and, thereby, endangering the safety of factory staff and degrading prison security.”

As a result, BOP employees at the Beaumont prison where the helmets were manufactured were transferred elsewhere, the facility was closed and ArmorSource agreed to pay a $3 million settlement to avoid criminal prosecution for violations of the federal False Claims Act.

In addition to the quarantine of helmets produced at the Beaumont prison, a total of 126,052 combat helmets manufactured by UNICOR between 2006 and 2009 were recalled at a cost to the federal government of over $19 million.