Congress continues to dismantle UNICOR.

Author:Summerill, Joseph
Position:Judicial News - Federal Prison Industries

Despite concerns raised by some members of Congress and the Bush administration about the negative impact that federal legislation that removes Federal Prison Industries' status as a mandatory source of supplies and services to federal agencies is having on inmate vocational programs, efforts to restrict sales of Federal Prison Industries continues in 2005. Federal Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR, is a component of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and employs federal inmates who manufacture goods and provide services, mainly for use by federal agencies.

At its inception in 1934, UNICOR enjoyed a "mandatory source status" for products and services purchased by federal agencies. This status designation meant that federal agencies were required to purchase products and services from UNICOR if those goods were delivered in a timely manner and the prices were considered competitive. Congress conferred this preferential status upon UNICOR to ensure that prison work programs remained in place and would be productive.

However, as the number of BOP facilities equipped with UNICOR factories increased, critics of UNICOR's mandatory source status became more vocal regarding the revenue generated by UNICOR and the fact that it did not have to compete to receive federal contracts. Critics noted that UNICOR regularly ranked 32nd among the top 100 federal contractors, just behind corporate giants like Exxon Mobil, and 72nd among top Department of Defense contractors, ahead of Motorola Inc., and Tyco International Ltd.

These critics argue that UNICOR enjoyed an unfair competitive advantage, which resulted in the loss of jobs in the private sector. They also argued that eliminating the sole-source contract requirement for UNICOR would not cause harm to UNICOR but instead improve the quality of products and services procured by federal agencies and compel UNICOR to offer the best "competitive" price for goods and services.

By the 1980s, Congress began introducing legislation requiring UNICOR to compete for federal contracts. For example, in 1989, the Prison Industries Reform Act of 1989 called for the elimination of UNICOR's mandatory source status. In 1992, the Federal Prison Industries Competition in Contracting Act sought to require UNICOR to consider whether industries producing UNICOR-like products had an unemployment rate higher than the national average. In 1993, legislation was introduced, requiring the U.S. attorney general to inform Congress...

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