Bureau of Prisons refuses to name businesses that employ prison labor

UNICOR cites deliberative privilege to withhold list of contractors

Written by Chris Caesar
Edited by JPat Brown

The government corporation tasked with managing federal prison labor has refused to release the names of private companies that contract for access to its low-paid, incarcerated labor pool.

UNICOR, also known as Federal Prison Industries, Inc. (FPI), was created in 1934 as a way to produce cheap goods for government departments while keeping prisoners busy behind bars. The initiative has since grown to average more than $500 million in yearly sales to public agencies and private companies.

The agency’s response cited deliberative privilege to deny MuckRock’s request for a list of “all private companies who employ, or have employed” any of its private labor programs. UNICOR operations range from inbound call centers to office furniture assembly.

The agency identified five pages responsive to the request, but elected to withhold the documents in their entirety under FOIA exemption b(5), which protects “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.” Rich Jones at the National Security Archive refers to it as the “Withhold It Because You Want To” exemption.

The vague provision allows deliberative documents - such as an attorney’s notes in preparation for litigation - to be withheld in order to provide for an atmosphere of frank and robust debate within the organization. Specifically, it empowers an agency to withhold any documents that would be not be considered discoverable in a civil courtroom.

While it may take some arm-twisting, a list of contracts from a government agency is not an unusual FOIA request, and one routinely honored by other agencies. A number of agencies have provided MuckRock with lists of contracts with Booz Allen Hamilton, the mega-contractor and former employer of Edward Snowden. And, like virtually all federal agencies, UNICOR posts its solicitations online.

Why these contracts fall under deliberative privilege is unclear. As subsequent appeal provided no answers.

A less direct but related request for a list of prisons involved in FPI programs, however, at least garnered the facilities employing labor, the number of inmates involved, and the type of industry hiring them.


Image via UNICOR.gov