The day after pro-Trump rioters forced their way into the Capitol building to take selfies and smear shit on the walls, the people responsible for cleaning up other people’s messes on the Hill were back on the job, using leaf blowers to collect trash and sliding mops across the floors. The wreckage included pieces of broken office furniture that Capitol workers wheeled out in carts. Photographs of a jumble of apparently disassembled desks were circulated online.
Given the various contractual relationships between the federal government and its subsidiary, Federal Prison Industries, Inc, the furniture that eventually replaces the vandalized items will almost certainly be built by incarcerated people working through a pandemic for wages between 23 cents and $1.15 an hour.
Federal Prison Industries, more commonly known as Unicor, is owned by the federal government and marketed by the Department of Justice as a “cost-effective labor pool” to internal agencies as well as, more recently, the private sector. The laws governing purchasing federal supplies practically forbid using any other supplier. As of 2017, Unicor tasked 17,000 incarcerated people with making anything from lamps to air filters to office supplies in 83 factories across the country, some of which were once open 24 hours a day.Incarcerated people working in these “factories with fences” are marketed as remote workers in call centers or data archives. Unicor labor made the PPE offered to the Bureau of Prisons. It also makes most of the somewhat bland furniture that appears in legislators’ offices, and has reopened nearly all of its factories as of October. (According to a report from the Marshall Project in April, several Unicor factories stayed open despite public health mandates as the pandemic ravaged the country through the spring.)
Unicor secures no-bid contracts from various agencies and the federal government’s laws essentially ensure that if Unicor makes something an agency wants, that’s where they’ll have to buy it—and should an agency want something from another company, they’ll need to loop Unicor in and let them offer a competitive bid. Conveniently, as the industrial designer Lindsay Malatesta noted recently, there’s a whole section of Unicor’s website dedicated to showcase the uninspired credenzas and workstations that are standard all around the Capitol, many of which were trashed by a roving band of white nationalists and conspiracy theorists this week.
Almost exactly two years ago, a bill that would have functionally ended Unicor’s relationship with the government was voted out of committee along party lines, with Republicans overwhelmingly in favor of keeping their reliance on cheap prison labor intact. The bill’s sponsor, Democratic delegate Lee Carter, argued rather reasonably that when “inmates have a choice to sit in confinement or work for as little as 80 cents an hour” that labor isn’t particularly voluntary at all.
“They take great pride in what they produce,” the CEO of the company that operates Unicor’s program noted at the time. Pride that will ostensibly extend to replacing desks destroyed by people whipped into a frenzy by elected officials obsessed with retaining the favor of a racist and violent base.