STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We're going to report next on a workforce that people don't think about a lot but that affects many people's lives - inmates in federal prisons. They make Kevlar vests for soldiers in Iraq; they make gun racks for the border patrol; they make office furniture for the Pentagon; and sometimes, they are the ones on the other end of your 411 information call.
But the prisoner work program has taken a hit recently from Congress. So 200 federal correctional officers plan to protest outside the Justice Department here in Washington. They say they are not trying to save their own jobs. They're trying to save the jobs of their inmates.
NPR's Laura Sullivan explains.
LAURA SULLIVAN: Brian Lawry has been a federal correctional officer for almost two decades. He'll be the guy at the front of the protest line later today. But don't mistake his presence there as a desire to do federal inmates any favors. There's no love lost between the inmates and the officers.
BRIAN LAURY: The only reason a staff member has not lost their life in the last year with the attacks I've even been able to review is by the grace of God, but not for the lack of inmates trying.
SULLIVAN: Lawry is head of the Prison Officers Union. After four years of heavy budget cuts that have dwindled their numbers, he and the other officers believe keeping the inmates busy working is the only way to keep themselves safe.
LAURY: We have had more staff assaulted with weapons in '07 than any other year in the Bureau of Prisons. There were more homicides, inmate on inmate, in '07 than any other year. There were more shots fired from towers, not to prevent escape, but to control disturbances where inmates were trying to murder other inmates on the yard.
SULLIVAN: Lawry doesn't have access to official violence totals. The Bureau of Prisons keeps the numbers secret. But he has a detailed tally collected from his fellow officers around the country, and it seems he could be right. An internal report from the Bureau of Prisons obtained recently by NPR says there were 1,362 inmate assaults on staff in 2006. That's almost 100 more than the year before.
(Soundbite of promotional video)
Unidentified Woman: Unicor's Office Furniture Group will orchestrate your office space with the finest in case goods from a collection of lines that transcend time with the elegance of classical design.
SULLIVAN: The promotional video from the Prison Furniture Factory could be any other office furniture commercial. It emphasizes choices, quality, prices, but nowhere does it mention the word inmate. And there's a reason for that. Furniture makers in Michigan would rather they not make anything.
Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): Prisons obviously have a huge advantage in terms of their cost of labor, to put it mildly.
SULLIVAN: Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, says even though the prisons can only sell to the government, they can hurt private businesses. Prison workers get paid little more than a dollar an hour. So Levin inserted a line in the defense authorization bill. It requires the Defense Department to see if any private businesses can compete with the prison prices first.
Sen. LEVIN: Of course you want to keep prisoners busy but you also want to let your own businesses sell to the government if they can do it more cheaply, and that's what we've been able to do.
SULLIVAN: The result so far is a 23 percent decrease in orders from the Defense Department. The correctional officers say they are expecting prison industries to lay off 6,500 inmate workers, and that's not their only problem. The Bureau of Prisons is short almost $300 million this year. Next time the officers hit the picket line to save jobs, it could be their own. Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.
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