Congress balks at prison plan to clothe military

A Justice Department program that employs federal prison inmates to produce goods for sale to federal agencies came under fire at a House subcommittee hearing last week for looking at the possibility of expanding its military clothing sales.

Federal Prison Industries (FPI), a division of the Bureau of Prisons that operates under the trade name Unicor, employs 20,000 federal inmates who produce $500 million a year in furniture, clothing, electronics and other products. FPI also employs 1,600 civil servants. Under federal procurement rules, agencies must buy certain products from Unicor.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., chairman of the House Education and Workforce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, called on FPI Board Chairman Joseph Aragon to provide the subcommittee with detailed business plans on proposed FPI commerical expansions.

According to Steve Schwalb, FPI's chief operating officer, FPI does not have a specific proposal to expand its clothing market, but is simply gathering feedback on whether or not such a move would be appropriate.

"We are gathering data on the market to determine whether or not we are even going to put forward the proposal [to expand military clothing sales]," said Schwalb. Schwalb said FPI sent a letter to industry and the Small Business Administration asking for feedback on FPI's possible commercial expansion.

Hoekstra has long been a critic of FPI. At a hearing last month on the FPI's computer recycling program, Hoekstra lambasted FPI for flouting federal rules designed to limit what it can sell in commercial markets. FPI is expanding into the information technology market by refurbishing surplus government computers and selling them to the public at discount prices.

FPI officials were not asked to testify at the hearing on computer resales. According to Schwalb, the hearing last Thursday on military clothing was FPI's first and only invitation to testify before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

Hoekstra introduced the Federal Prison Industries Competition in Contracting Act, H.R. 2551, in the House last year. The bill, now in House subcommittee, would require FPI to compete with industry for federal contracts.

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