By Lance Griffin
The closing of two Alabama apparel plants that lost work to prison labor has prompted Congresswoman Martha Roby to support a bill designed to limit the practice.
Roby, R-Montgomery, said Thursday that she plans to co-sponsor the Federal Prison Industries Competition in Contracting Act, sponsored by Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich.
According to Huizenga, the bill would end a provision in current federal law that gives a federal corporation known as Federal Prison Industries (or UNICOR) first right of refusal for certain government contracts. It would also prohibit the company from utilizing prison labor to sell products commercially.
One apparel plant in Selma has closed and another in Fayette has announced plans to close after losing contracts to FPI, which pays inmates at some federal prisons between 23 cents and $1.15 per hour. The plant in Fayette lost a military uniform contract to FPI. The corporation manufactures several other items.
Roby said Huizenga's bill doesn't shut down FPI, but levels the playing field.
"Several constituents contacted me concerned about this situation, and I've been looking into it. To be clear, it's not the government's responsibility to create jobs with federal contracts. However, it is our job to create an environment in which private sector companies can not only survive, but thrive," Roby said when contacted by the Dothan Eagle. "And we should never make it more difficult for businesses to succeed. That's my concern with this prison labor situation."
The bill currently has 28 cosponsors. It has rested in the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security since Jan. 6. Legislators from both parties have signed on as cosponsors.
Other provisions of the legislation include:
» Requires government agencies to research private sector products based on price, quality, and time of delivery before making a purchase from FPI to best meet agency needs.
» Requires purchasing agencies to negotiate terms and conditions of contracts and price paid with FPI, which cannot exceed fair and reasonable price determined by the Federal Acquisition Regulation.
» Requires FPI to submit a detailed analysis of the impact on the private sector with any proposal that would expand to new products or services.
» Prevents prison produced goods from entering interstate or foreign commerce, except for existing contracts.
» Prohibits agencies from contracting with FPI in which inmates would have access to sensitive or classified information.
» Imposes federal occupational, health, and safety standards on FPI with respect to its industrial operations.
» Directs FPI to increase prison workers' wages to minimum wage by 2017.
Roby said the bill does not affect other entities that work with set-aside contracts such as special needs organizations.
"It makes no sense for the federal government to be allowing prison labor to limit our nation's job creators' ability to compete for work," Roby said. "This bill ensures our priority is to help small businesses that create jobs, not to feed contracts to a government-owned corporation that employs lawbreakers."
FPI has said it produces only 7 percent of the textile garments purchased through the program, a consistent percentage over the last 10 years. FPI also maintains that it provides inmates with skills that allow them to be productive on release and less likely to return to prison.
"FPI is not a business -- it's a correctional program. It only sells its products to the federal government, it does limited advertising, and it focuses primarily on labor-intensive activities in order to provide more inmates with skills and work experience," FPI states on its official website. "The real product that FPI turns out is a productive citizen who can return to society as a law-abiding taxpayer because of the skills and experience they have gained."