A scathing report of a joint investigation by the Justice Department’s Inspector General and the Defense Criminal Investigative Service found that the Bureau of Prisons’ Federal Prison Industries (FPI) produced more than 100,000 combat helmets that were defective and would “likely cause serious injury or death to the wearer.”
As the Financial Times wrote, “Few pieces of equipment are as important to ground troops as helmets, which provide ballistic and impact protection and can be used as platforms for mounting sophisticated electronic devices. But as a new Justice Department Inspector General summary report documents, [FPI] cut corners, used degraded or unauthorized materials, and cheated on inspections as they produced next-generation combat helmets.”
The prison officials pre-selected helmets for inspection, switched and altered serial numbers, and filed fraudulent documents to hide the defects. Worse, the prison staff instructed inmates to forge manufacturing documents falsely claiming that all the helmets had passed inspection and met contract specifications. They threatened to punish the inmates if they did not comply.
This shocking example of fraud and shoddy workmanship on equipment intended for U.S. armed forces is not an isolated incident. For years military leaders have complained that FPI delivers products that are defective and far behind schedule.
In 1998 I testified before the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee about the FPI facility at Nellis Air Force Base (since closed) at which 130 inmates worked rebuilding and refurbishing government vehicles, mostly for the military. Much of the work was rebuilding forklifts, and mechanical and electrical components for them, such as starters, alternators, motors and hydraulic systems.
Instead of rebuilding the tow motors, the prisoners were instructed to simply give a new coat of paint to the worn-out parts, reinstall them as new, and invoice the buyer as if the vehicles had been refurbished. The military test-operated a large number of forklifts that had been “totally rebuilt” by FPI at Nellis Air Force Base. The forklifts were intended for a large military contingent that was to be quickly deployed to war zones or other emergency purposes. Virtually every machine failed within hours.
The military raised the roof. They were left without much-needed forklifts for their emergency force. The prison immediately sent a busload of inmates to the city where the equipment was located with tools and parts to try to put the Humpty Dumpty back together again. Needless to say, the inmates loved every minute of it since they got out of prison for a while and ate real food for a change.
However, cheating, faking tests and falsifying reports are not the lessons our prisons should be teaching inmates.
Congress supports FPI because they like the idea of inmates working and learning marketable skills. They are right. Those are laudable purposes, but our representatives need to look beyond the good intentions of FPI, and examine the actual practices of the program. They will find that FPI is the wrong entity to oversee the work program.There are several reasons that FPI is doomed to failure. First, the FPI managers have no private-sector experience supervising employees. They are correctional officers, not business executives, and this scandal is an example of their inept supervision.
A second reason is that FPI is protected from competition. It pays the inmates far below real-world wages, giving FPI a large advantage over private-sector manufacturers. And FPI does not have to please their customers because “mandatory source” regulations require government agencies to buy their products. With guaranteed customers, they have no incentive to provide quality products and deliver them on time.
Most important, FPI is a Stalinist-era government-run enterprise, and we know how successful the Soviet industries were. Because there is no bottom line to evaluate the success of FPI, it is judged by whether it meets artificial goals set by the bureaucracy in their “plan.” The temptation for the inexperienced managers of FPI is to cover up their failure to meet the goals of their plan by falsifying their reports — which is exactly what they did in the situations I have described here. And it was our brave GIs who were put at risk.
It is important that prisoners are given productive work to teach them skills that will make them more employable upon their release. But the current FPI program doesn’t accomplish those important goals. It is time to reform our federal prison work programs so they actually do what they are supposed to. Our armed forces deserve that. And so do the taxpayers.
• Pat Nolan is the director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation.
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