To a criminal defense attorney, UNICOR is the same kind of double-edged sword as “cooperation,” aka being a snitch. On the one hand, it’s good for clients to get into a UNICOR program, for multiple reasons, including maybe learning a useful skill for when they’re released. On the other hand, it’s just barely not slave labor and conditions are bound to not improve now that the program has the ability to compete with private enterprise.
It also results in some truly fucked up irony on the ground. As Colbert points out, UNICOR originally sold only to other federal agencies including federal defender offices. That’s right – my office probably includes furnishings made for almost now pay by someone our office once represented in court. Isn’t that sick?
It’s not that I’m opposed to the idea of prison labor in general. It makes perfect sense as a limited program, designed both to provide job training to inmates and labor to maintain the facilities in which they’re incarcerated. But there’s a line that gets crossed when people locked in a cage are working for outsiders at a rate of pennies per hour. Keep in mind, we’ve been down this road before as a nation.
Of course, UNICOR’s ever expanding scope is just another symptom of a criminal justice system that is being turned into a Twilight Zone-ish profit center for private enterprise, which should be viewed as a national tragedy. But I’m guessing it never comes up during tonight’s debate, which is the real tragedy.