by DCDave

UNICOR, The Job Trainer

And next to its role in coping with the bane of "inmate idleness," prison industries are said to impart valuable work skills. If industrial labor is to be the primary tool to deal with the idleness problem, then perhaps apparel, that is, mainly sewing jobs should be in growing demand among one group on the inside. Since 1984, owing largely to the aggressive use of conspiracy charges against "uncooperative" wives, girl friends, sisters, and even mothers in drug cases, the number of women in federal prisons has grown from 2,000 in 1984 to 6,923 by most recent count, a 246% increase.30 But, more and more, the "valuable experience" that they or their male counterparts might get in the typical UNICOR assembly-line job is no good to them on the outside, because such jobs have either gone overseas or have been taken by recent immigrants to this country, or, in the ultimate irony, they have been taken by prisoners.

One gets the impression that things were quite a bit different in the early days of FPI. The federal market was growing steadily and manufacturing employment was expanding in all sectors, including the low-skill, labor-intensive assembly work that FPI used then and still uses to keep the most number of prisoners busy.

By the late 1930s, FPI was on sufficiently firm financial ground to establish a fund to finance vocational training programs and job placement services. It began hiring industrial counselors at individual institutions to plan vocational study courses and appointed a job placement director to coordinate FPI's vocational training opportunities with the needs of outside industry, to help ensure that inmates would learn the most marketable skills. 31

Such talk these days would have an other-worldly quality to it. Because "marketable skills" and UNICOR work are increasingly two entirely separate things, prison industries spokespersons and advocates speak more and more about the value of the "work ethic" that is imparted by the experience, though education and vocational training continue:

In 1982, the Bureau decided that inmates must demonstrate a 6th grade literacy level before they could advance beyond entry level pay status. In 1986, the literacy standard was increased to 8th grade level, and in 1991 a high school diploma or GED certificate became the requirement. To promote academic achievement still further, education departments at each institution established incentive programs to motivate students and recognize their accomplishments, and a new position of Associate Warden for Industries and Education was established to improve coordination between industrial work assignments, vocational training, and academic education. 32

In light of current economic reality and FPI's mandate to employ as many inmates as possible, these new associate wardens would seem to have been handed a thankless and impossible task. For the most part, there is simply no coordination to be made between work assignments, which are mainly repetitive, assembly-line operations in old-fashioned industries, and vocational training and academic education. Note, too, that missing from the job description is the earlier requirement of the "job placement directors" to coordinate the training with eventual employment on the outside, though the claim is made that "...the adoption of more modern techniques and equipment (has) permitted UNICOR to upgrade its on-the-job training, thereby better preparing inmates for post-release employment."33

Since UNICOR overall program has not received in recent years the thorough, detached analysis that California's prison industry has, once again we are forced to look to the California State Auditor's report for insight:

...the PIA has not established or employed a job placement mechanism which helps inmates find work when they are released from prison.

Specifically, the PIA has no formal program to follow inmate employees to the outside world in terms of either assistance or measurement. For example, there is no organized "letter of recommendation program" for the more outstanding inmate employees to use when they apply for jobs.

There is no systematic attempt to match inmate employment skills with outside opportunities. For example, there are very few textile manufacturing jobs available in California for inmates formerly employed at the R.J. Donovan textile mill.

The marketability of PIA inmate work skills in questionable. Some PIA jobs are in fields with a labor surplus, which utilize outmoded equipment and production techniques, or require licenses that are difficult for convicted felons to obtain. 34

The observation was also made that the criteria for prison industry employment had little to do with eventual outside employment as evidenced by the fact that those with long prison terms had as good a chance or better to get the inside jobs as did those whose release was imminent.

With the exception of the absence of a program to measure post-release success, about which I will say more later, from my contact with current or past federal prisoners, all of the California observations would seem to apply quite well to UNICOR. The answers by one anonymous prisoner to the questions on one questionnaire can hardly be called scientific, but they were elicited by a trusted contact from one of the most experienced and thoughtful UNICOR inmates of his acquaintance, and the reader is invited to evaluate them for their ring of truth, or lack of same:35

Q. Are inmates nearer to release given preference over others for UNICOR employment?

A. Not to my knowledge. (At this point the inmate provided information to indicate why his knowledge, at least of his prison, was a good deal better than most. To protect the prisoner's identity I must omit that information.)

Q. Are prisoners with shorter sentences given preferences over prisoners with longer sentences for UNICOR employment?

A. Again, the answer is the same as that to number one.

Q. Does UNICOR employ illegal aliens?

A. Yes. A memo directing all CEO's to identify and remove all UNICOR workers who had INS detainees by September of 1996 (or 95) was circulated but never acted on--at least at the factory I was at. While such a detainer does not necessarily mean that individual is an illegal alien, several cases I was aware of involved individuals who were not legally entered into the country at the time of their crime and arrest.

Q. Does UNICOR employ those with no prospects for release within the foreseeable future?

A. Yes. Many I know of fit this category.

Q. Does UNICOR attempt to place workers in similar jobs after release?

A. Not to my knowledge. I feel confident in answering no."

Q. If you could change one or two things about UNICOR what would they be?

A. Upgrade and maintain the technologies within the factories so that they represent a real jobs-skill resource for those inmates working there. As it is, the manufacturing processes used are so out of date and primitive that any skills used are completely non-transferable to outside industry. Hence, a viable rehabilitative asset is lost. Not that the BOP evidences any functional designs in that direction.

Q. Do you believe that UNICOR is essential for maintaining an orderly prison?

A. An orderly prison? No. A truly focused and viable educational and technologies program could easily...or at least realistically challenge and occupy as many minds an bodies as UNICOR does. (Technologies represents vocational training but with a real focus on those fields which offer real opportunities for inmates upon release.)

Q. On a scale of one to ten, in which ten is excellent and one is miserable, how would you rate federal prison vocational training and education programs?

A. 2-3. Only total neglect warrants a "1."

Q. Is prisoner idleness a problem? Why or why not?

A. Yes. This time in prison represents the last and possibly only opportunity the vast majority of inmates will have to educate themselves. It is this idleness which is permanently relegating the prison population to the non-productive fringes of society.

Q. Are inmate education and vocational training encouraged and/or facilitated?

A. Only superficially. The GED programs generate budget facilitating income and are consequently the only real concern. However, the standards of the program appear to be so low as to be more a paper chase than a functional educational program. Having passed, a GED graduate is still so lacking in the basic skills as to be unqualified for any career field requiring an average high school level of knowledge and performance. I am amazed to see the charade that is passing for a "high school equivalency diploma." At least that is what is being presented. All secondary educational programs are dead. At this facility any inmate-supported and directed programs such as voluntary Spanish classes, investing classes, literacy programs, etc., are blocked by the administration. We are not encouraged to learn outside of the GED program, such as it is.

Q. If you could change only one or two things in the Bureau of Prisons, what would they be?

A. The focus, or lack of, on rehabilitation and education. Challenge our minds. Allow a partnership between the administration and the inmate population to tap and utilize the rather broad depth of experience and knowledge to create a truly dynamic continuous education resource.

The complete lack of connection between the FPI experience and preparation for life on the outside is echoed by a recent report independently prepared by a former federal prisoner:

Most of the inmate employees of FPI, Inc. do not look upon their jobs as helping them when they are released. Most inmates work for FPI Inc. as a way to make their incarceration easier.
The first day an inmate enters prison should be the day the inmate and prison officials start planning for his or her return to society. They should establish rigorous programs for self-improvement with carrot and stick requirements and incentives. An inmate should earn rehabilitation and prove that he or she deserves a chance. Job skills are of extreme importance. Yet job training in FPI, Inc. is used as a mechanism to enhance security by reducing idleness and not for job training for those inmates who have earned a chance. For those who do self-rehabilitate there should be aggressive job placement support when they are returned to society.
A detailed plan for inmate self-rehabilitation should be developed. Criteria should be established in which an inmate would be eligible to work for FPI, Inc. only after the inmate proves him or herself worthy of the opportunity for self-rehabilitation. Presently, the only criteria are to be on a waiting list and maintain favor with prison officials. Surely, "lifers" and non-citizens should not work for FPI, Inc. By allowing "lifers," non-citizens, and career criminals to work for FPI, Inc. we are denying the rehabilitation opportunity to inmates that will someday be back in our society.

Of course, this is assuming that FPI work would actually provide any worthwhile rehabilitation opportunity, and to increase the likelihood that it would, this former prisoner, like the small business representatives testifying before Congress, recommends that FPI be made to compete for government contracts.

Another prison insider, in a 1996 privately-published book, also sees education, not prison industry labor, as the real key to rehabilitation, and his assessment of the federal BOP in that regard reinforces that of other observers. He also shares with us his opinion as to why the BOP is so neglectful in the education area:

Rehabilitation in a federal prison is tragic, and yet laughable. As both an inmate and inmate instructor, I became convinced education is the only means to the conversion mentioned in the foregoing chapter (such as the Pennsylvania Quakers envisioned when they christened the early American places of incarceration "penitentiaries" ed.).

Education in federal prisons is kept at the kindergarten level. Any serious thinking on the part of either the prisoners or the guards is discouraged in every way. From the top down, the plan is deliberately imposed to thwart, even eradicate, any meaningful attempts by prisoners to further their education while incarcerated. Of diversion there is plenty, softball to ping-pong, miniature golf to dominos, everything and anything in the line of playthings to pass time. The prisoner who prefers to use his spare time for educational purposes is considered an incorrigible, and is treated accordingly, for bureaucracy well knows where danger lies. A thinking person is a real and obvious threat to their status quo. 37

To those, like Director Schwalb, who claim that getting rid of prison industries entirely would entail an enormous new expense in alternative programs to rehabilitate and keep inmates occupied he has this answer:

The most practical approach to the problem of education in prison would be to use educated inmates as instructors. Regardless of how low the intelligence level might be, at least the literate could serve to teach the illiterate to read and write. Every prison, unfortunately, comes stocked with inmates qualified to teach any educational level, from grade school to university. There is nothing original or unique about this idea; it has been used successfully in various state prisons for many enlightened years. The FBP (Federal Bureau of Prisons) refuses to allow prisoners to become instructors on the theory it would cause moral contamination, and at the same time they admonish managements of free world industries for not assuming the social responsibility of hiring more prison parolees.

David Martin

continued in UNICOR IV - Flawed Premise?

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