By Andrea Goodell
Rep. Bill Huizenga is leading a charge to rein in Federal Prison Industries, a federally-owned industry that provides everything from polo shirts to desk chairs for federal contracts.
Those federal contracts, the Zeeland Republican says, should be available to companies such as those in his district, a major center of furniture manufacturing. FPI is allowed a certain amount of no bid government contracts.
Huizenga's been active this week in his quest for support for the bill. He introduced it at the end of last year. The bill was referred to the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security in January. News coverage this week has snowballed.
"I think it's a story that's hitting a the right time," Huizenga said. He pointed to rising unemployment in Michigan, stagnant employment numbers across the country and other issues.
A military uniform manufacturer in Alabama lost a federal contract to Federal Prison Industries, despite offering the same uniform for $5 less each.
"In a time of high unemployment, we must rethink and restructure public sector programs that ultimately take jobs away from honest, hardworking Americans," Huizenga's office said in a statement.
Michigan just recorded 9.4 percent unemployment, a 0.4 point increase over the previous month and the fourth straight month of jobless increases in the state.
Beyond employing inmates' time and providing them with job skills they might use after incarceration, FPI's mission is to "provide market-quality products and services" and minimize its "impact on private business," according to its website.
The bill -- H.R. 3634 -- has more than two dozen co-sponsors and bi-partisan support.
The law would require FPI to compete for government contracts.
"All we say is 'you can't come in and automatically get a contract,'" Huizenga said.
A five-year grace period would allow time for the adjustments, including increases to their inmate workers' wages. Inmates make between 23 cents and $1.15 an hour, Huizenga said. Wages wouldn't equal that of workers outside prison, but inmates' maximum wage would have to match that of the American minimum wage by 2017 under the bill.
Inmate workers would be subject to workplace health and safety standards. It would also create alternative vocational opportunities for them.