By Noah Shachtman
March 8, 2011
This spring, the United Arab Emirates is expected to close a deal for $7 billion dollars’ worth of American arms. Nearly half of the cash will be spent on Patriot missiles, which cost as much as $5.9 million apiece.
But what makes those eye-popping sums even more shocking is that some of the workers manufacturing parts for those Patriot missiles are prisoners, earning as little as 23 cents an hour. (Credit Justin Rohrlich with the catch.)
The work is done by Unicor, previously known as Federal Prison Industries. It’s a government-owned corporation, established during the Depression, that employs about 20,000 inmates in 70 prisons to make everything from clothing to office furniture to solar panels to military electronics.
One of the company’s high-tech specialties: Patriot missile parts. “UNICOR/FPI supplies numerous electronic components and services for guided missiles, including the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) missile,” Unicor’s website explains. “We assemble and distribute the Intermediate Frequency Processor (IFP) for the PAC-3s seeker. The IFP receives and filters radio-frequency signals that guide the missile toward its target.”
The missiles are then marketed worldwide — sometimes by Washington’s top officials. Last year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pitched the Patriots to the Turkish government last year, a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks reveals: “SecDef stressed that ‘nothing can compete with the PAC-3 when it comes to capabilities.’”
Patriot assemblers Raytheon and Lockheed Martin aren’t the only defense contractors relying on prison help. As Rohrlich notes, Unicor “inmates also make cable assemblies for the McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F-15, the General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16, Bell/Textron’s Cobra helicopter, as well as electro-optical equipment for the BAE Systems Bradley Fighting Vehicle’s laser rangefinder.”
Unicor used to make helmets for the military, as well. But that work was suspended when 44,000 helmets were recalled for shoddy quality.
Government agencies — with the exception of the Defense Department and the CIA — are required to buy goods from Unicor, according to a Congressional Research Service report (.pdf). And no wonder: the labor costs are bordering on zero. “Inmates earn from $0.23 per hour up to a maximum of $1.15 per hour, depending on their proficiency and educational level, among other things,” the report notes.
Last year, Unicor grossed $772 million, according to its most recent financial report (.pdf). Traditionally, inmate salaries make up about five percent of that total.
Unicor insists that the deal is a good one for inmates — and for the government. The manufacturing work offers a chance for job training, which “improves the likelihood that inmates will remain crime-free upon their release,” the company says in its report. (Some reports suggest that Unicor prisoners are as much as 24% less likely to return to crime.)
The work also keeps the inmates in check, Unicor insists. “In the face of an escalating inmate population and an increasing percentage of inmates with histories of violence, FPI’s programs have helped ease tension and avert volatile situations, thereby protecting lives and federal property,” the company says. “Prisons without meaningful activities for inmates are dangerous prisons, and dangerous prisons are expensive prisons.”