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It has always been fairly well known that prisoners make everything from street signs, park benches -- and yes, license plates -- to office furniture for federal agencies like the VA and DoD (this last example being to the continuing consternation of Representative Pete Hoekstra, R-Michigan, whose district is home to Steelcase (SCS), Herman Miller (MLHR), and Haworth), but the Bureau of Prisons' PAC-3 missile program has gone largely unnoticed -- until now.
For the record, federal prisoners are making more than missile components. Inmates also make cable assemblies for the McDonnell Douglas/Boeing (BA) F-15, the General Dynamics (GD)/Lockheed Martin F-16, Bell/Textron's (TXT) Cobra helicopter, as well as electro-optical equipment for the BAE Systems Bradley Fighting Vehicle's laser rangefinder.
As it turns out, this practice has been hiding in plain sight for two decades; detailed in Unicor's annual report each year, highlighted in its brochures, and explained in depth -- although buried several pages deep -- on Unicor.gov. The missile components made by prisoners are needles in haystacks of thousands of parts, often contracted and subcontracted out endlessly. The organization's annual reports aren't exactly making any New York Times best-seller lists, and the Unicor.gov website receives so few visitors, Quantcast, the Internet metrics firm, is unable to provide traffic data.
With that in mind, the Unicor/Patriot missile connection took some of the top defense analysts in America by surprise.
"It's kind of mind-boggling and hair-raising to find out a major component of a national security system is being made in prisons," says William Hartung, PhD, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation, member of the Sustainable Defense Task Force, and author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nation Books, 2010).
"For one thing, just the symbolism of it, God forbid, the global publicity -- I don't think using prison labor to build missiles reflects very well not just on Lockheed Martin, but on the United States," he says. "We're supposed to be a beacon of freedom and holding up the values of the free market. I can't think of an example that contrasts that more starkly than doing this kind of thing."
While sourcing components from prisons is perfectly legal, the idea makes Hartung more than a little uncomfortable.
"It just doesn't smell right to me," he continues. "It's really on the cutting-edge of questionable practices. The fact that it does an end-run around organized labor is a problem. There's no greater restriction on a worker's rights than being stuck in prison."
The actual logistical arrangement between Lockheed, Unicor, and the Pentagon is quite murky. In response to a request for details, Craig Vanbebber, of the Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control division, "did quite a bit of research into… FPI/Unicor's role on the PAC-3 missile system," and it "appears that they are a supplier to the US Government, not a direct supplier to Lockheed Martin." This is even more unsettling to some, and of course, doesn't change the fact that Lockheed PAC-3s include parts made by prisoners, whether they are on the company's direct payroll or not.
The missiles are then marketed worldwide — sometimes by Washington’s top officials. Last year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pitched the Patriots to the Turkish government last year, a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks reveals: “SecDef stressed that ‘nothing can compete with the PAC-3 when it comes to capabilities.’”