When most people, especially locals, think of NAS Pensacola, they think of the Blue Angels. the Blue Angels are the U.S. Navy's precision aerial acrobatic team, and their home base is at the Naval Base in Pensacola. There is also a wonderful Naval Air Museum on the base. Because of this, NAS Pensacola is a pretty open base. All you need for admittance to the base is your driver's license, registration and proof of insurance. Much of the base is publicly accessible.
What you DON'T know is that it's not only the public and the military that has free access to the base. The Federal Bureau of Prisons operates FPC Pensacola at nearby Saufley Field, and every day over 250 prisoners are bussed to the base as inmate laborers. When we say free access, we do mean it. It's not like you see on TV, with a group of chained prisoners with a cop with a rifle on horseback watching them. The inmates work, drive trucks and even operate heavy equipment, often without supervision.
Plus, they aren't wearing black-and-white striped uniforms, or bright orange coveralls, they wear green workpants and jackets, and white t-shirts. They, nor their vehicles, are denoted as inmates in any way.
Is the public informed about this as they come onto base? Heck no. Well, rarely. This February 10, 2012 cover of Gosport, a newspaper serving NAS Pensacola, did have the following story:
Of course, if your family were simply tourists, you wouldn't have any idea who these folks were. So much for keeping the public informed. This is one of those things the military has wanted to keep quiet about for a long time.
But interestingly, someone's making a lot of money from these prisoners, and they don't mind bragging about it. Regal Select Services, Inc (RSSI), is making a bundle, and they are happy to tell the world. You can go to their website, regal-select.com, and they'll tell you about what they do:
Regal Select Services Inc. (RSSI) provides labor coordination and administration for federal inmates performing work on various military installations throughout the U.S.
So, all RSSI does is supervise - and we do use the term loosely - the inmates. They say they have "highly talented individuals that are proficient in a wide array of technical skills," but since the prisoners are often working without oversight or supervision, one wonders what the RSSI guys do. Drink coffee?
One can joke about this for quite a while, and the sheer lunacy of this practice is nearly unbelievable. But it's been going on for over a decade, and the government and RSSI continue to expand the program. In case you're wondering, yes, there have been problems and incidents, but the base clamps down on publicity and doesn't let such news see the light of day.
One doesn't need much of an imagination to see what could go wrong here. In this day of threats to our national security and public safety, why would such a practice be allowed? Have we forgotten about the Fort Hood shooter, where a member of the military opened fired on a military base in November 2009 and killed 13 people? People could come onto the base, and leave weapons or contraband for the prisoners to pick up. Prisoners with access to offices could find and sell private, sensitive or secret information. Besides the Blue Angels, NAS Pensacola trains Naval Aviators.
Must we wait for something to happen before we decide this is a stupid idea?
Frankly, this whole crazy program has "Congressional Criminal Investigation" written all over it!
On the outside, Unicor, with its big oaks and magnolia trees, looks like it could be part of a landscaped industrial park. Step a little closer and it's clear the apparel shop lies in the middle of a medium-security federal prison in east Alabama.
The factory and those like it that employ convicted felons are at the heart of a simmering debate about whether prisons should be siphoning away jobs — at much lower wages — that could be filled by those who need them during the nation's toughest period of unemployment in decades.
Congressional Republicans, a handful of Democrats and private-industry critics want to clamp down on Unicor — the trade name of Federal Prison Industries.
Almost 13,000 inmates working in federal lockups around the country for a few dollars a day make everything from military uniforms to office furniture to electrical parts that are sold exclusively to federal agencies. With annual revenues that reached $900 million last year, Unicor is the federal government's 36th-largest vendor.
Here's an important point:
"While it operates as a business, the real output is inmates who are trained in marketable job skills so that they can return to the community as productive members of society," Philip J. Sibal, senior deputy assistant director of Federal Prison Industries, told a congressional committee earlier this year.
But Misti Keeton's eyes welled with tears at the thought of losing her job to a convict. She sews military apparel in the west Alabama town of Fayette at American Power Source. The company is laying off about 50 workers at her plant and another one in Columbus, Miss., after losing a contract to make Air Force exercise garb to Unicor.
"I'm terrified," Keeton said as she fed camouflage cloth through a machine with one hand and wiped away tears with the other. "I've got two teenagers at home. I don't know what I'm supposed to say to them if I lose this job. I don't know what I'm supposed to feed them."
Sure, it sounds good, keeping prisoners that are released from coming back. Problem is, they don't just put short-timers in these prisons. They put in lifers, who will never get out. So, it would seem it's more about making money.
A Monroe County inmate who authorities say left his work detail and stole a truck from the site last week has surrendered himself but not the vehicle.
About 6 p.m. Tuesday, Ricky Gennoe, 36, turned himself in at the Monroe County Sheriff's Office. He walked away from his work detail Oct. 16 at Hiwassee College, according to a news release by Maj. Jennifer Bledsoe of the Sheriff's Office.
Bledsoe said Gennoe "wasn't in the truck" when he surrendered, but they planned to talk Wednesday with him about it.
This was interesting, too:
"We don't have hardened criminals working on campus," Littleton said. "They are always in supervised situations and in employee areas. They have no contact with students."
Well, if they aren't hardened criminals, what are they doing in prison? Seems that if they can be out in public, then they don't need to be behind bars.
It sure seems inmate labor breeds corruption:
Assistant State Attorney Russ Edgar attempted to use Randall Holcombe’s words and deeds against him Wednesday to prove his case for racketeering and grand theft.
Edgar first presented a 2009 interview with law enforcement agents in which Holcombe made several comments later contradicted by testimony.
Then he introduced an item taken from Holcombe’s Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office computer.
The computer file was made Aug. 29, 2008, after Holcombe had received a $7,000 performance bonus from former Sheriff Charlie Morris and obtained $3,000 allegedly to kick back to the sheriff
Edgar claims Holcombe collected inmates brought to the Sheriff’s Office to work and used them to help Morris’ wife, Barbara Morris, clean up after estate sales.
The inmate labor allowed Barbara Morris to hold on to more of the commission she received from sales.
After all, they're free, right?
Of the more than $1 billion a year in federal contracts awarded to UNICOR, about 45 percent are Defense Department contracts. A Pentagon spokeswoman said last year’s total contract awards to UNICOR came to $193 million.
The Defense Department has awarded more than $2 billion in contracts to UNICOR over the past dozen years, according to the USASpending.gov, a website overseen by the Office of Management and Budget.
And it’s not just uniforms. UNICOR also manufactures radios, headsets, and Kevlar helmets -- 44,000 of which the Army recalled because of manufacturing flaws two years ago. U.S. prisoners also produce furniture, for which the Department of Veterans Affairs is a major customer, along with other federal departments and agencies across the government.
"The way the law is -- Federal Prison Industries gets first dibs and contracts up to a certain percentage before they have to compete against us," said Retired Air Force Col. Kurt Wilson, executive vice president of business development and government affairs for American Apparel. "The Army combat uniform, for instance, is an item that they take off the top. As a result, American taxpayers pay more for it -- but the bottom line is each soldier is paying more for their uniform."
Before joining American Apparel, Wilson oversaw uniform and textile contracting for the Defense Logistics Agency. He said American Apparel would charge $29.44 per uniform, but the UNICOR uniform costs $34.18 -- a 15 percent difference.
“Why would the price be higher, considering prisoners are paid so little?” he asked.
The Justice Department, which oversees UNICOR, declined to comment for this story. Spokeswoman Julie Rozier said in an email that contracts are not always awarded based on the lowest price but also on the best value for the government in terms of quantity and delivery processes.
Of course, most folks understand you get what you pay for. A well-paid, law-abiding American worker is the most productive in the world.
Some folks thing you can still get something for nothing.