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In which we use prison labor to make body armor to sell overseas

I like to read the contract notices issued by the Pentagon. On a good day you can watch billions and billions of dollars go out the door in support of blowing various things and people up. Among the beneficiaries of today’s contracts is UNICOR, the government corporation that contracts prison labor to make stuff for the federal government.

Federal Prison Industries Inc. (UNICOR), Washington, D.C., was awarded a $75,000,000 firm-fixed-price contract. The award will provide for the modification of an existing contract to procure outer tactical vests in support of Foreign Military Sales. Work will be performed in Yazoo, Miss., with an estimated completion date of Aug. 25, 2013. The bid was solicited through the Internet. The U.S. Army Contracting Command, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., is the contracting activity (W91CRB-08-D-0045).

The Foreign Military Sales program is the government’s weapons-dealing branch, which did some $66 billion in business last year under the Nobel Peace Prize president, up almost 300% from the previous year. Why are we selling so many weapons and support equipment to people, often of questionable moral character? Let’s let the government explain.

The Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program is the government-to-government method for selling U.S. defense equipment, services, and training. Responsible arms sales further national security and foreign policy objectives by strengthening bilateral defense relations, supporting coalition building, and enhancing interoperability between U.S. forces and militaries of friends and allies. These sales also contribute to American prosperity by improving the U.S. balance of trade position, sustaining highly skilled jobs in the defense industrial base, and extending production lines and lowering unit costs for key weapon systems.

I hadn’t really thought of the US gulag as part of the “defense industrial base,” but I suppose there’s no reason it shouldn’t be, nor any reason we shouldn’t be using slave labor to make things to sell to the likes of Qatar and other human-rights scofflaws who send billions of dollars back our way; indeed, there’s a pleasing symmetry to it. And no doubt the skills the prisoners learn will help them find a job on the outside with one of the many defense contractors who don’t consider federal felony convictions any bar to employment.

UNICOR doesn’t seem to get a lot of war department contracts — a very superficial look only turned up one previous award in the past year, $15 million for camouflage pants to be made at an unspecified Kentucky prison, and only about 10 in the past decade, less than a billion all told (again, that’s a very superficial search; could be more). Clearly our leaders are not fully exploiting the resources at their command.

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