House again votes to end prison firm's procurement preference

The House voted Wednesday to approve legislation that would end the status of Federal Prison Industries as a mandatory supplier of goods to federal agencies.

House members approved the Federal Prison Industries Competition in Contracting Act (H.R. 2965) on a 362-57 vote.

FPI, which operates under the trade name UNICOR, employs inmates at federal prisons to produce office furniture, clothing, electronics and other products for the federal market. Under federal law, agencies must use FPI as a source for goods under certain circumstances.

The full House has passed similar legislation to subject FPI to private-sector competition previously, but the Senate has not followed suit. A related Senate measure (S. 749) introduced in April 2005 by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., has not made it out of committee.

"I look forward to working with the Senate on passing a companion bill so that we can finally send it to President Bush for his signature," said the House bill's sponsor, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich.

The measure garnered broad support from industry groups representing companies that compete with FPI, and unions representing private sector workers. The Federal Managers Association also backed the bill, arguing that the mandatory source requirement ties contracting officials' hands.

"For too long, federal managers and supervisors … have been forced to spend taxpayer dollars on goods and services provided by FPI, regardless of whether the transaction represents the best return on public dollars," wrote Darryl Perkinson, the group's national president, in a Sept. 8 letter to members of Congress.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents federal correctional officers, opposed the bill on the grounds that it would reduce employment opportunities for prisoners and increase idleness, thus potentially leading to increased attacks on prison guards.

"Given the correctional officer shortages at Bureau of Prisons facilities throughout the country, the FPI prison inmate work program is invaluable in keeping inmates occupied and staff safe," AFGE Council of Prison Locals 33 President Bryan Lowry said this week.

Hoekstra said the bill would set up alternative work and rehabilitation programs that would keep inmates active and train them to re-enter the workforce.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents 1.4 million private sector employees, including truck drivers and warehouse workers, said in a Sept. 12 letter supporting the measure that a transition period provided in the bill would give FPI time to adjust to having to compete for agencies' business. The phase-out "should advance the objective of protecting the correctional staff as well," the letter stated.

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