It looks like it's getting harder to find good help these days -- especially when the help are federal prisoners: earlier this month, the U.S. Army recalled 44,000 helmets manufactured by Beaumont inmates working for Federal Prison Industries, Inc.
Also known by the less-Orwellian-sounding UNICOR, FPI -- a wholly-owned government corporation -- has a non-compete contract with the Department of Defense. Prisoners have been cranking out helmets for years; but last November, Army officials discovered a problem with the helmets' paint, which led to discoveries of other flaws.
Army Spokesman Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings told The Newark Advocate that the Department of Justice conducted additional tests, and, according to the Advocate, "the helmets failed a subsequent test, which the Army claimed would not protect a soldier against a rare but worst-case scenario' of being hit by multiple gunshots at a specific angle."
The Department of Justice is currently investigating UNICOR operations, according to Pennsylvania Congressman Chris Carney, a Democrat who has called for UNICOR to submit to competetive bidding. (Carney represents a district that includes a company that would be able to compete against UNICOR). The DoJ has not elaborated on the nature of the investigation.
The recall didn't come as a total surprise to Hair Balls; we'd written earlier about a federal suit against UNICOR, filed in Beaumont on behalf of 47 prisoners manufacturing Army helmets who had been evacuated in the wake of Hurricane Rita in 2005. When the inmates returned to prison, according to the suit, they were allegedly forced to work under sweatshop conditions afterwards, in order to make up for lost time. (The helmets manufactured during the timeline of the lawsuit do not appear to be included in the current recall).
"The first week back in prison, inmates worked 14-hour days, seven days a week. The shifts later dipped to 12-hour days for a dozen straight days before inmates were given a day off. Inmates were pushed to make as many helmets as possible," we wrote.
The recall didn't come as a surprise to Norman Sirak, the Ohio attorney who filed the Beaumont suit.
"UNICOR has a very cozy relationship with the Department of Defense," Sirak told Hair Balls today. "Nobody from the Defense Department is allowed to go in there [to] do an inspection."
We just put in calls to UNICOR and the Army's media office to find out more about the specifics of the contract pertaining to the recalled helmets. In all, 102,000 helmets were subject to recall, but only 44,000 had been in use when the problems were discovered. We'll let you know if and when we hear back. (UPDATE: Lt. Col. Cummings just told us the total contract for the 102,000 helmets was $21.5 million.)
The whole thing is a shame, really: if you can't trust convicted felons to do a good job, who can you trust?