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PLN mentioned in article on federal prison labor program

Beaumont Enterprise, Oct. 17, 2016.

Critics question manufacture of military products at Beaumont prison

Updated 12:00 pm, Monday, October 17, 2016

Almost six years after Beaumont's federal prison shut down a factory where inmates produced hundreds of thousands of defective combat helmets, about 300 prisoners are still employed at the low-security facility.

Now they make pants.

The switch from the manufacture of combat gear to soldiers' trousers is one of many changes prompted by the three-year helmet scandal, the alarming details of which were contained in a withering report released two months ago by the Office of Inspector General.

From 2006 to 2009, supervisors instructed inmates to use rotted Kevlar - a synthetic fiber designed for ballistic protection - then change serial numbers when helmets failed inspection and pass them through anyway, according to documents. Hatchets were used to remove paint from other helmets, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The U.S. military wound up paying $19 million for more than 126,000 unsafe helmets produced in Beaumont.

Among other changes adopted following the scandal:

- The Department of Defense now inspects all body armor at its remaining factories.

- Inspection results are uploaded monthly into a database, then audited regularly by an agency responsible for monitoring defense department contracts.

- Contractors' production and inspection processes are audited quarterly.

Despite the changes, inmates across the country still make military body armor under substandard working conditions with little training and no worker protections.

'Asking for trouble'

Considering the 10,965 inmates employed nationwide by Federal Prison Industries earn between 23 cents and $1.15 an hour, critics question whether they should be making sophisticated combat gear.

Concerns over qualifications aren't limited to inmates.

Malcolm Bales, recently retired U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, says supervisors at prison factories often lack necessary training in manufacturing.

Prisons allow correctional officers to supervise inmate labor, which ranges from industrial work to housekeeping, mechanical and food services.

"They don't have any special industrial training on how manufacturing is supposed to be, how to problem-solve in tooling or retooling," Bales said.

Beaumont's 293 federal inmates are split into two shifts covering the hours of 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Bureau of Prisons spokesman Justin Long said in an email.

Inmates here make pants.

Elsewhere, they make the military's bedsheets, towels, pillowcases and blankets, Long said.

But inmates in some facilities still make body armor, despite the known risks.

Bales said the Inspector General's report was remiss in not addressing the idea that certain items should not be made at prisons.

"That's problematic to me," Bales said. "One of the things I saw right away is that they can make uniform pants. They can assemble wiring harnesses. ..."

But, Bales said, "The whole idea of (prison labor) as a source for sophisticated military equipment is a pretty challenging thing. There's certain levels of sophistication for work prisoners can do and then after that you're asking for trouble. And the helmets were asking for trouble."

The Bureau of Prisons denied The Enterprise's request to tour Beaumont's low-security facility.

'Slave labor'

Prisoners often are treated like slave labor, say inmate advocates, and work in conditions that can compromise the quality of products.

Alex Friedmann, managing editor for advocacy media outlet Prison Legal News, said that because inmates aren't allowed to unionize or collectively bargain, they are subject to possible exploitation by prison staff.

Only prison officials control the working conditions and basic workers' protections, Friedmann said.

The 13th Amendment abolished "involuntary servitude" except as punishment for a convicted crime.

Supreme Court ruling from 1877 prevents prisoners from unionizing.

All federal inmates work if they are physically and mentally able, according to federal and state prison officials.

The roughly 147,000 state prisoners are unpaid, according to a Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman.

TDCJ incentivises inmate labor with "good time" credits for self-improvement plans, which are considered when inmates are eligible for release.

More than 5,000 TDCJ inmates are assigned to Texas Correctional Industries, which offers a variety of specialized training.

Texas established its correctional industry program in 1963.

Federal Prison Industries was established by Congress in 1934.

Prison officials on both levels insist the point of the programs is to prepare prisoners for life after incarceration - not operate a going enterprise.

"Part of the core mission of the agency is to promote a positive change in their behavior and prepare them for re-entry into society," TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said. "We believe having a job is critical to their long term success."

'Intentionally investigated'

The helmets made in Beaumont from 2006 to 2009 were different from previous ones.

They required more complex and detailed weaving of the Kevlar inside helmet shells.

ArmorSource, the helmet manufacturer, had poor quality control, according to the OIG.

Bales said Federal Prison Industries underbid its subcontract with ArmorSource, which made more than $30 million from the helmets, leading to added pressure to make a complicated product.

A lawsuit accused ArmorSource and prison staff members of growing impatient with the meticulous process, which was more time-consuming than they anticipated.

Eventually, prisoners were told to cut corners.

Buddy Gunn, locked up since 1993 on a life sentence for selling methamphetamine, was a Beaumont inmate who tried to stop faulty helmets from hitting the production line, court records show.

Gunn, now 63 and housed at a medium security facility in Oklahoma, declined an interview request by The Enterprise.

Gunn said through a prison spokesperson he would not comment further because inmates had been blamed for the helmet fiasco.

Bales stopped short of characterizing allegations at the Beaumont prison factory as criminal.

The allegations were "intentionally investigated," by the U.S. attorney's office, he said. The findings: No one intentionally made bad helmets.

It was gross incompetence rather than anything nefarious, Bales said.

"I think what you would find is that they made numerous mistakes," Bales said. "The million-dollar question is when did it slide from defective manufacturing and an inability to build the helmets to deliberate fraud. That is a challenging legal argument."