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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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"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 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." However it shakes out in the Byzantine system of federal procurement, PAC-3s rely on systems made by prisoners.

Christopher Preble, PhD, a former commissioned officer in the US Navy, author of The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous and Less Free (Cornell University Press, 2009), and current director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, was also unaware that prisoners were being used to build weapons parts. For him, the practice raises questions about a much larger policy issue currently being fiercely debated in Washington, DC -- that of maintaining the so-called "defense industrial base."

As Preble explains, the defense industry insists keeping a highly-trained, highly-skilled workforce "warm" is vital to its very existence. But if prisoners are performing apparently vital, mission-critical tasks, it casts some doubt as to the supposed delicacy of the defense industrial base. It also may further the case that a large defense budget is, as former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich wrote in an August, 2010 editorial, "an insane way to keep Americans employed."

It echoed many of the same points laid out by Preble and Hartung in a 2009 Washington Times op-ed, which argued, "The defense budget is not a jobs program, nor should it be. Decisions on how many Humvees to buy, or how many bases to refurbish, should rest on military necessity, not economic expedience subject to political chicanery. When military procurement becomes nothing more than a series of thinly veiled pork- barrel projects, it risks exposing our troops to unnecessary risks, and ultimately undermines our security."

Preble says, "When you talk about reductions in defense spending -- and I encounter this almost daily -- you have a certain set of people with a vested interest in making the argument that there is a unique defense industrial base that will be destroyed if any funding is cut; that there will be structural damage, it will not rebuild, that it must be subsidized at extremely high cost, ad infinitum, or it will disappear forever. It comes up in the context, oftentimes, when a particular weapons system is nearing the end of its previously agreed-to production cycle."

Hartung wonders if maintaining an "efficient" industrial base by keeping production levels high for systems we do not need now but one day might; isn't, by definition, inefficient?

"How does one square building missile components using prison labor with the notion that you need to keep a large, very expensive workforce at the ready at all times," he says. "Maybe this means you keep technical teams together, scientists, engineers working on R&D, but that the assembly process is perhaps more fungible. It calls into question the entire industrial base argument."

Preble says the theory "never really sat well with me" and that "the global economy is such that US manufacturers have capitalized on our comparative advantages, which are design and marketing -- the beginning of the process and the end of it, which is the hard part. Everything in the middle is where we don't have that advantage, which is why things get made elsewhere."

"You tend to assume that weapons manufacturing requires a certain set of specialized skills," he says. "When I hear about PAC-3 components being built by prisoners, for a guy who was always skeptical about 'preserving the industrial base,' it certainly doesn't do much to assuage my doubts. If anything, it feeds into them. If you can train inmates to put together wiring harnesses for Patriot missiles, you can probably train people to do other, related jobs -- and fairly quickly. When you need people, you go get them."
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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