By Prison Legal News

The loss of a $45 million contract to produce military clothing has caused
Tennessee-based Tennier Industries to lay off around 100 workers. The contract
was awarded to Federal Prison Industries (FPI), also known as UNICOR, which
will use prisoner slave labor to manufacture the clothing that otherwise would
have been made by freeworld employees. [See: PLN, May 2012, p.1].

Image courtesy agentworldstore.com

Tennier is located in a depressed area of Tennessee; its main line of business
is military clothing manufacturing. The federal prisoners who will perform the
work under the FPI contract will be paid from $.23 to $1.15 per hour. “Our
government screams, howls and yells how the rest of the world is using prisoners
or slave labor to manufacture items, and here we take the items right out of
the mouths of people who need it,” stated Tennier CEO Steven W. Eisen.

Some federal lawmakers see a problem with FPI. “If China did this – having
their prisoners work at subpar wages in prisons – we would be screaming bloody
murder,” said U.S. Representative Bill Huizenga, the lead sponsor of
legislation to overhaul FPI. “This is a threat not to just established
industries; it’s a threat to emerging industries.”

Huizenga was part of a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers behind a bill
introduced in Congress in December 2011, the Prison Industries Competition in
Contracting Act (H.R. 3634), designed to change the way FPI operates. Under
current policy, FPI has preferential status that requires federal agencies to
purchase prisoner-made goods if FPI offers them with comparable price, quality
and time of delivery to that of private sector businesses (with certain
exceptions). While FPI does not always quote the lowest price, it is often able
to underbid private companies.

H.R. 3634 sought to limit FPI’s sales to the federal government by removing the
agency’s preferential status, allowing private companies to provide more
products to the government, and toughening price requirements on prisoner-made
goods to make them more competitive. The bill would have increased prisoner
wages to $2.50 per hour and imposed federal work-safety standards on FPI.

“As the system is currently set up, if UNICOR wants a contract from the federal
government it gets it,” Rep. Huizenga stated. “More often than not UNICOR is
given a contract, not because other companies do not produce the product or
service requested, but because UNICOR receives preferential treatment when it
provides services to other branches and agencies of the federal government.
This process takes jobs away from hardworking men and women that are currently
employed, has a negative impact on economic growth and does not guarantee the
highest quality product or best use of taxpayer dollars.”

U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell introduced another bill, the Federal Prisons
Accountability Act of 2012 (S. 2169), that would require the director of the
Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to be appointed by the president with the consent of
the Senate. The bill noted that the BOP’s director “serves as the chief
operating officer for [FPI] … that directly competes against the private
sector, including small businesses, for Government contracts.” Senator
McConnell filed the bill after he was contacted by several Kentucky companies,
including Campbellsville Apparel and Ashland Sales and Service, that were at
risk of losing contracts to FPI.

“Our company believes that FPI should be more accountable to the public by
never taking a job that is currently done by an American taxpaying citizen,”
stated Campbellsville Apparel president Chris Reynolds. “My employees just
cannot believe the fact that a prisoner who should be paying a debt to society
is being promoted through the federal government to a job from an American taxpaying
citizen.”

The bills introduced by Rep. Huizenga and Senator McConnell both died in
committee in 2012; they have not yet been reintroduced in the current session
of Congress.

Meanwhile, FPI is moving into production of solar panels and other energy
technologies to help the government meet mandates for using renewable energy
sources. Up to 400 federal prisoners are assembling solar panels at FPI plants
in Otisville, New York and Sheridan, Oregon. [See: PLN, Jan. 2011, p.46]. FPI
said its purpose is to “provide inmates with job skills in a new and growing
market,” according to spokeswoman Julie Rozier.

FPI industry programs have “been important to the Federal Bureau of Prisons for
a long time,” added George Keiser, a former official at the National Institute
of Corrections. “It’s one of the areas where they can demonstrate a high
correlation between people who work in prison industries and who eventually, as
they return to their communities, have a higher-than-average success rate at
not being rearrested, not being reconvicted and not returning to prison.”

The BOP reports that prisoners employed in FPI programs are 24 percent less
likely to return to prison and have a 14 percent greater chance to find work
upon release. FPI does have a financial cost, though, as it lost $1.8 million
in 2011 – an improvement from the $56.3 million the agency lost the year
before, largely due to a recall of defective military helmets. [See: PLN, Jan.
2011, p.20].

Tennier Industries filed a bid protest with the U.S. Government Accountability
Office (GAO) over its loss of the $45 million military clothing contract to
FPI. The company noted that the contract was issued as a Historically
Underutilized Business Zone (HUBZone) set-aside, which, according to government
regulations, is intended “to provide Federal contracting assistance for
qualified small business concerns located in historically underutilized
business zones, in an effort to increase employment opportunities, investment,
and economic development in those areas.”

However, Tennier’s complaint was denied on June 29, 2012, even though FPI is
not a HUBZone business and despite the company’s argument that allowing FPI to
compete for the contract defeated the purpose of the HUBZone program. The GAO
determined that federal statutes and regulations “specifically allow[ed] FPI to
participate in the procurement,” and that because FPI was not a HUBZone small
business it did not have to comply with the rules applicable to such
businesses.

Sources: New York Times, https://smallgovcon.com/, www.louisville.com,
www.acquisition.gov, www.gao.gov

(First published by Prison Legal News and used here by permission)

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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