New 'Hire American' order should not include prisoners
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Today, President Trump signed an executive order enforcing his administration’s worthy concept to “Buy American and Hire American.”

Unfortunately, while the program is well-intended, there exists a hidden flaw within the confines of the announcement. That issue was not addressed in today’s executive order.


When the government buys apparel for the military (or other federal institutions under the guidelines of the Berry Amendment), instead of giving first dibs to private domestic contractors, it allows the federal prison system to grab the business. That’s right, our prisons get priority to bid on uniform manufacturing!


The group creating this issue is a division of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), operating under a work program called the Federal Prison Industries (also known as UNICOR). They profess to do all things good for prisoners, but their efforts (and growing business model) retain the power and the ability to put legitimate U.S. apparel makers out of business.

How can that be? Is our own government unintentionally forcing hard-working American firms to shut down? Well, yes, it’s quite true, because these independent contractors lose orders to UNICOR due to a requirement that the U.S. military “mandatory source” their apparel from the prisons, before going to the private sector.

There are multiple reasons why this is happening, but suffice it to say — as a country, we sometimes (through procedure and regulation) spin out of control. UNICOR pays prison inmates slightly more than $0.23 an hour, provides free healthcare and does not pay any taxes or utility bills. With advantages like these — plus having first dibs on every available apparel order for the U.S. military — only a fool wouldn’t win a federal contract.

Policymakers instinctively believe that this is probably not true. When President Obama signed the Trade Facilitation and Enforcement Act into law last year, it included a provision that U.S. Customs prohibits, stops and enforces a ban on products made with forced labor that are imported into the United States.

What’s weird is that we had the good sense to mandate that it is illegal to import from the international prison environment, but we allow it to remain very legal if the prisons are based in America!

Most Americans have never heard of UNICOR. They think the prisons are only involved with stamping automobile license plates, but they are sorely mistaken. UNICOR is huge, with sales approaching $500 million and a manufacturing base that includes apparel, mattresses, linens, draperies, office furniture, electronics and printing.

Today, it appears UNICOR utilizes more than 10,000 inmates and operates in 63 prison factories for their product segments. Apparel items represented 39 percent of all product groups, thus making apparel and textiles UNICOR’s largest and most lucrative operating segment.

UNICOR does put out good press and portrays an excellent face. Their important claim that UNICOR work assignments prevent prisoner recidivism is rather interesting, considering that about half of all federal prisoners get re-arrested anyway. 

In addition, regarding the quality of finished items, UNICOR also “guarantees all products to be free from defect in materials and workmanship.”

Do you remember the story about thousands of Army and Marine Corp troops that received defective combat helmets (made by UNICOR) a few years ago? All the (approximately) 126,000 UNICOR helmets were recalled and no one was hurt. However, the government sustained a loss of more than $19 million.

No criminal charges were filed, despite clear evidence that there was deception and falsification within the prison system! Sometimes, we must pause and wonder how all this nonsense happens.

We clearly do applaud the concept of “Buy American, Hire American.” However, for our world of "Made in USA" garment manufacturing, it’s time to keep the prisons from competing with the private sector. If the administration is willing to take this effort to the next level, then the federal government would need to put a stop to this double-dealing with the prisons.

Prison labor should not get priority over private contractors making apparel for our soldiers. In the era of boondoggle government, that additional action by the administration would clearly demonstrate that we are exercising our very best intentions as we put America first!


Helfenbein is President and CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association and is a strong advocate for a robust U.S. trade agenda and for “Made in USA.” He lectures frequently about politics and international trade. Follow him on Twitter @rhelfen.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.