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Why are Prisoners Building Patriot Missiles?

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Right now, federal prison inmates in correctional institutions across America are making Patriot missile components. Alarming? Sure. But it could also inform a larger debate currently underway in Washington.

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Right now, federal prison inmates in correctional institutions across America are making parts for Patriot missiles.

They are paid $0.23 an hour to start, and can work their way up to a maximum of $1.15 to manufacture electronics that go into the propulsion, guidance, and targeting systems of Lockheed Martin's (LMT) PAC-3 guided missile, originally made famous in the first Persian Gulf conflict.

Surprised? Me too.

Unicor, known as Federal Prison Industries until a 1977 re-branding, is a network of over 100 factories at 70 penitentiaries within the US; a self-sustaining, self-funding company owned wholly by the government, created by an act of Congress in 1934 to function as a rehabilitative tool to teach real-world work skills to federal inmates. Unicor's mandate dictates that prison work programs not adversely affect private sector businesses.

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/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.

Despite repeated requests, Unicor would not disclose how many inmates are currently assigned to defense-related jobs, but public records show Unicor electronics factories located at no fewer than 14 federal correctional institutions.

Here's how the work is described on Unicor's website:
"Unicor supplies numerous electronic components and services for guided missiles, including the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) missile. We assemble and distribute the Intermediate Frequency Processor (IFP) for the PAC-3s seeker. The IFP receives and filters radio-frequency signals that guide the missile toward its target.

"We are an important supplier of complex electrical harnesses that link initiators, primers and detonators in the guided missile warheads, and connect infrared, radar and electro-optical sensor data that provide essential threat discrimination in high-clutter environments.

"Our RF cable assemblies connect and control antenna mast groups that communicate with remote missile launching stations. We supply grounding cables and shielding to protect antenna arrays from electro-magnetic interference and pulses. In addition, Unicor produces and distributes testing and repair kits that help to ensure that guided missiles and other critical ordnance are deployment ready."
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.
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