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TheStreet Open House

Prison Factories Caught In Private Biz Debate

"I'm terrified," Keeton said as she fed camouflage cloth through a machine with one hand and wiped away tears with the other. "I've got two teenagers at home. I don't know what I'm supposed to say to them if I lose this job. I don't know what I'm supposed to feed them."

Critics of the program say Unicor undercuts private companies because of lower operating costs and laws that require federal agencies to use inmate-produced products when able.

Inmates in the Talladega prison factory are paid by the pieces of clothing they complete and average around $150 a month, which goes into an account at the prison. At American Power Source, workers make $9.25 an hour average, or about $1,480 a month based on a 40-hour week.

Federal prisoners, though, haven't taken huge numbers of jobs away from private industry. Private groups supporting limits on Unicor's operation have documented only 300 or so layoffs directly linked to private companies losing work to federal prisoners, all at four textile plants in Alabama and Tennessee.

And, though Unicor doesn't have to pay benefits like many private employers, Talladega plant manager Robert Bynum said the factories face a challenge other businesses don't: Making quality products with convicted felons, many of whom don't know how to work.

"Every day I get guys who've never had a job," said Bynum. Correctional officers are stationed all around the prison, but not inside the factory unless needed.

The tension between private jobs and rehabilitating prisoners has hounded the prison industry program since it began under President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression in 1934, when the national unemployment rate was 22 percent.

Back then, the American Federation of Labor opposed creating a prison-based manufacturing network, arguing it would suck jobs away from the private sector at a time when working people needed every job they could get. The arguments today against Unicor are similar as the nation tries to escape lingering high unemployment following the worst recession since before World War II.

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