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Prison Factories Caught In Private Biz Debate

JAY REEVES

TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) â¿¿ On the outside, Unicor, with its big oaks and magnolia trees, looks like it could be part of a landscaped industrial park. Step a little closer and it's clear the apparel shop lies in the middle of a medium-security federal prison in east Alabama.

The factory and those like it that employ convicted felons are at the heart of a simmering debate about whether prisons should be siphoning away jobs â¿¿ at much lower wages â¿¿ that could be filled by those who need them during the nation's toughest period of unemployment in decades.

Congressional Republicans, a handful of Democrats and private-industry critics want to clamp down on Unicor, the trade name for Federal Prison Industries.

Almost 13,000 inmates working in federal lockups around the country for a few dollars a day make everything from military uniforms to office furniture to electrical parts that are sold exclusively to federal agencies. With annual revenues that reached $900 million last year, Unicor is the federal government's 36th-largest vendor.

Corrections officials say the program teaches prisoners invaluable job skills and personal discipline that help cut down on their return to prison. Inmates who work in the program are 24 percent less likely to commit more crimes than other prisoners after being released, they say.

"While it operates as a business, the real output is inmates who are trained in marketable job skills so that they can return to the community as productive members of society," Philip J. Sibal, senior deputy assistant director of Federal Prison Industries, told a congressional committee earlier this year.

But Misti Keeton's eyes welled with tears at the thought of losing her job to a convict. She sews military apparel in the west Alabama town of Fayette at American Power Source. The company is laying off about 50 workers at her plant and another one in Columbus, Miss., after losing a contract to make Air Force exercise garb to Unicor.

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