Wednesday, June 20 , 2018, 9:48 am | Overcast with Haze 61º

 
 
 
 

Diane Dimond: Foreign-Made Goods Flood U.S Federal Prisons

Have you ever watched that recurring ABC Evening News segment called “Made in America”? It highlights small businesses that provide lots of jobs and make competitively priced products designed to reduce our appetite for cheap foreign-made goods.

It stirs my patriotic juices every time I see it, and it makes me wonder what would happen to our economy if we were to all buy merchandise only made here in the United States.

Well, one of my friends has been thinking about this, too. He has recently had a lot of time on his hands, as he is serving an 18-month sentence in a federal prison. He did a stupid (nonviolent) service for one of his associates and is now paying the price. After having been on the inside for a while, he thinks the Federal Bureau of Prisons ought to take a page from the Buy American handbook, too.

“You know how bored I am, so I read everything, even labels,” he wrote me recently.

“When I noticed that the pillows and mattresses were foreign made, I decided to start checking the labels on everything from the packaged food in the commissary and chow hall, to all of the daily products that are distributed inside of these walls,” he said. “I was amazed to discover just how many things were.”

To prove his point, the last letter he sent included a group of labels he had torn from several prison-issued items. The label affixed to the pants and shirts each prisoner receives, he said, clearly shows they are made in Sri Lanka. The label from his size 9½ prison boots includes the words “made in China.” The label from inmates’ sweatshirts confirms they came from Honduras. The institution’s T-shirts and towels are manufactured in Bangladesh. Sheets and prison pillows are made in Pakistan. Soap and shaving creams, he said, come from Mexico.

To be clear, some of the labels carried the name of U.S. distribution companies, meaning the foreign-made goods filtered through American firms and, therefore, benefited American workers.

Among the vendors I found on the labels were the following: Red Kap of Nashville; R&R Textile Mills Inc., which operates in California, Delaware and Illinois; Jerzees of Bowling Green, Ky.; and Charm-Tex of Brooklyn, N.Y.

But is there more the Bureau of Prisons could do to help fulfill President Donald Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again” by easing reliance on foreign-made goods and putting even more Americans to work?

Yes, my prison source says. “All of these items could have just as well been made in UNICOR by inmates here, saving the government money while assuring that the money stayed inside the U.S. borders,” he wrote.

UNICOR is a self-sustaining training program set up inside some 50 federal prisons across the country. At UNICOR centers, inmates get on-the-job training that teaches them to make a wide array of products, including mattresses, linens, towels, furniture, food-service products, electronics, specialty signs and even eyewear.

They are paid a nominal hourly amount, but they leave prison with a résumé and an employable skill. Most of UNICOR’s sales are to federal agencies looking to buy quality products at reduced prices.

So why doesn’t the Bureau of Prisons buy more from UNICOR and less from foreign sources?

I contacted the Bureau of Prisons to ask about its purchasing policies. Does the BOP encourage federal penal institutions to buy American whenever possible? Do its regulations allow prison personnel to buy directly from foreign companies? Does anyone check to see if child- or human-trafficking labor is involved in manufacturing the goods U.S. prisons buy?

I was instructed to email in my list of questions, but unfortunately, I did not get a response by my deadline.

Trump frequently mentions how movers and shakers from Silicon Valley to the auto industry are abandoning foreign factories and moving back to the United States. He clearly wants America’s dollars to be spent on American-made products. But I wonder if the word has been officially passed down to federal agencies to fully re-access their purchasing procedures and Buy American as often as possible.

During this time, when the IRS is paying out $20 million to private companies that collected less than $7 million in outstanding taxes this last fiscal year, when the Defense Department is earmarking nearly $24 million to fix the refrigerators on Air Force One, it sure would be nice to know that at least some federal agencies are looking at ways to economize.

I, for one, would appreciate it very much.

Diane Dimond is the author of Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Enter your email
Select your membership level
×

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >