Many federal prisoners are making equipment for U.S. military forces in Iraq, the alternet.org Web site reports. Examples: 265 inmates in Greenville, Il., make more than 1,000 desert-tan camouflage shirts per day; 300 make Kevlar helmets factory in Beaumont, Tx., filling the military’s demand for battlefield headgear; prisoners in Marion, Il., solder millions of dollars worth of cables for the Pentagon’s TOW and Patriot missiles.
Alternet.org says that were it not for this captive labor force, the military could not meet needs ranging from weapons production and apparel manufacture to transportation servicing and communications infrastructure. The inmates involved are among 21,000 who workfor Federal Prison Industries (FPI), a quasi-public, for-profit corporation run by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Last year, the company sold $678.7 million worth of goods and services to the federal government, more than $400 million of which went to the Department of Defense.
FPI has grown exponentially, now ranking as the government’s thirty-ninth largest contractor, partly due to the quantity and diversity of apparel items it manufactures for the Department of Defense. The company has churned out more than 150,000 Kevlar helmets in the past 24 months, more than $12 million worth. Aside from the battle-dress shirts sewn at Greenville, the company is also a major supplier of men’s military undershirts, $1.6 million of which it sold to the Pentagon in 2002. Federal inmates also do their part to ensure that US forces are never outgunned. FPI factories produce a variety of components for weaponry ranging in size from 30mm to 300mm, the caliber of battleship anti-aircraft guns.
FPI’s relationship with the non-prison labor market remains strained. The company tries to turn a profit to offset costs in the prison system, while bolstering security by keeping close to 25 percent of the inmate population busy. But with the prison population rising, FPI struggles to find enough new products and consumers to keep its work force occupied. FPI’s competitors in the textile industry are in no less of a bind, with more than 200,000 jobs heading overseas since 2001. Since the Defense Department is required to buy U.S.-made goods, it is one of the few remaining safe havens where glove and other apparel makers can retreat from overseas sweatshop and prison labor competition.