Most processors may not know it, but one of their biggest competitors just might be the federal government.
Federal Prison Industries Inc., operating under the trade name Unicor, generated nearly $134 million in sales under its plastics and electronics division in 2000. Its plastics operations are located in federal prisons in Beaumont, Texas, and Fairton, N.J., and include injection molding, thermoforming, extrusion and compression molding.
Processors competing with Unicor acknowledge the idea is good. But now that the economy is in bad shape, they are pushing to reform the system. Reform is needed; but legislators need to be careful not to gut the program at the behest of jealous competitors.
Largely because of the ongoing war on drugs, Unicor's been in a growth mode in the past decade. Federal law requires Unicor to employ 25 percent of medically able convicts, and the prison population has exploded in recent years, from fewer than 25,000 inmates in 1980 to 155,000 today. That means Unicor has nearly 39,000 inmates who need to stay busy, get some work experience, and generate some revenue that may help pay for their incarceration.
Right now, Unicor has an unfair advantage in winning government work. The company can take any federal contract - without competitive bidding - if it can prove that it can handle the job.
The government needs to find a way to inject some competition into the process. The goal should not be to take work from Unicor, but to make sure taxpayers aren't being fleeced, and to give processors a fair chance to try to win a bigger share of government work.