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Expanding Inmate Employment Under the First Step Act


In fact, one of the main motivations for the First Step Act helping inmates gain skills while reducing recidivism through meaningful work Writer and philosopher Voltaire once wrote that “work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need.” That is true both inside and outside of prison. The Act focuses on programs and activities that will help inmates more easily transition back into their communities upon release through work opportunities.

Specifically, the Bureau of Prisons’ wholly-owned corporation, called Federal Prison Industries (FPI), has begun work in earnest since the First Step Act was passed to expand FPI’s markets. The Bureau of Prisons is also working with the Government Accountability Office to ensure that the FPI is properly audited.

In this blog, we will spend a little time talking about the FPI, what it is, and how it can help further the positive changes resulting from the First Step Act.

What Is the FPI?

The Federal Prison Industries program, which is now being operated under the trade name UNICOR, is a program designed to allow federal inmates to work, and get paid for that work, while still in prison. Initially established back in 1934 through an Executive Order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, FPI is a corporation that is owned by the U.S. government. The corporation, with the skilled labor of inmates, provides all types of products and services, including:

  • Apparel and accessories;
  • Awards and plaques;
  • Electronics;
  • Eyewear;
  • Food service;
  • Signs and print products;
  • Computer aided design;
  • Data services;
  • Call center solutions; and
  • Printing services.

Over 80 years after it was first created, it continues on – at no cost to taxpayers – to benefit communities across the country, while allowing a productive way to reduce recidivism.

FPI’s stated mission is to “protect society and reduce crime by preparing inmates with job training and practical work skills for reentry success.”

What Are the Goals of FPI?

The creation of FPI is founded on three main goals:

  1. Maintain and develop work and job training opportunities that are meaningful so that inmates will be prepared to reenter their communities and remain law-abiding.
  2. Ensure that the corporation continues to be financially self-sustaining.
  3. Allow FPI staff to gain increased responsibility by providing quality training and development opportunities.

Is FPI’s Focus Solely on Making Money?

No. First and foremost, FPI is a correctional program. The motivation for the program is not about business, but about preparing inmates for their release back into the community. If offenders are able to acquire new skills in prison, those skills are transferable to the working world on the outside.

There are, however, a number of benefits that flow from FPI.

  • Statistics show that inmates who worked in FPI or completed a vocational apprenticeship were 24% less likely to re-offend, and 14% more likely to be gainfully employed after prison, compared to those inmates who did not participate in such programs.
  • It has also been shown that the money that inmates make working at FPI does not get squandered on luxury/discretionary items. Rather, in 2015, inmates who worked in FPI factories contributed almost $1 million of their earnings towards meeting financial obligations including court fines, child support, and restitution. Some inmates were able to contribute to their families by sending some money earned back home.
  • FPI also helps surrounding businesses. Specifically, FPI purchases raw materials, supplies, equipment, and other services from private businesses – primarily small businesses owned by women and minorities. Therefore, FPI is a boon to other businesses that have transactions with FPI.

Where Does the Money Earned by FPI Go?

The sales revenue generated by FPI goes back into the business cycle. In fact, approximately 77% of FPI’s revenue is spent on the raw materials, supplies, and equipment mentioned above. 20% of the revenue is spent on salaries and benefits for those who train and supervise the inmate workers. Finally, 3% of the revenue is paid directly to inmates.

What Impact Has the First Step Act Had on FPI?

The First Step Act has expanded the reach of FPI. First, the First Step Act has authorized the FPI to sell its products in four new markets. Those markets, which represent a whole new batch of customers, are:

  • Penal and correctional institutions;
  • Public disaster relief and emergency response entities;
  • The District of Columbia government; and
  • Tax-exempt non-profit organizations.

Second, the expansion into new markets means an increase in the number of jobs available through FPI.


We have known since the time of Voltaire that work decreases boredom, vice, and need. And, that notion still holds true today. Recent statistics demonstrate that those inmates who engage in productive work while in prison ultimately have a better chance of leading productive, vice-free, lives after they are released.

There is no rule saying that inmates should be forced to perform meaningless labor, and nowhere in the federal law does it state that inmates should be restricted from meaningful, productive work opportunities while serving their time. FPI is noted for having rehabilitative potential, plus inmates can acquire marketable skills that range from a basic work ethic, to specific trade expertise. The likely improvement in self-esteem that comes from work certainly pays dividends down the road.


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About Brandon Sample

Brandon Sample is an attorney, author, and criminal justice reform activist.Brandon’s law practice is focused on federal criminal defense, federal appeals, federal post-conviction relief, federal civil rights litigation, federal administrative law, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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