BY DIANE DIMOND
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 9 1/2 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, Tennessee; R & R Textile Mills Inc., which operates in Illinois, California and Delaware; Jerzees of Bowling Green, Kentucky; and Charm-Tex of Brooklyn, New York.
But is there more the Bureau of Prisons could do to help fulfill the president’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 resume 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.
President Trump frequently mentions how movers and shakers from Silicon Valley to the auto industry are abandoning foreign factories and moving back to the U.S. 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.