Each weekday morning at the Leavenworth minimum security federal prison camp in Kansas, more than 130 of the camp’s inmates troop off to work at the institution’s Electronic Recycling Factory. For many, this is the first real job that they have ever held.
The Leavenworth Electronics Recycling Factory is a part of Federal Prison Industries, Inc., better known as UNICOR, a wholly-owned government corporation operated within the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Founded in 1934, UNICOR’s objectives are to provide meaningful work for federal prison inmates, to provide vocational training and establish good work habits, and to bring in revenue for the Bureau. That revenue is intended to ensure that UNICOR is at least self-sustaining, and hopefully making a profit.
Across the federal prison system inmates at 80 factories in 65 prisons make military uniforms and other garments, body armor, desks, storage cabinets, awnings, and solar panels, operate print shops, and even sort clothes hangers. Some of these operations provide meaningful vocational and workplace skills that will help the inmates to find employment once they are released from custody, while others are mindless, repetitive jobs which many on the outside regard as indefensible slave labor. In order not to interfere with private commerce, UNICOR’s goods and services are a required “first source” for federal agencies, and its charter limits its sales to federal or state governments, although this is not always the case.
The Department of Defense has long been UNICOR’s biggest customer, accounting for around half of the $750 million annual sales. The downsizing of the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, together with major budget cuts, has meant that the Department of Defense’s spending on UNICOR goods and services has fallen by a third, from $536 million in 2007 to $357 million in 2012.