Prisoners no longer making helmets for troops

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By JEFF SCHOGOL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 26, 2010

Federal prisoners will no longer make helmets for U.S. troops after the Army recalled 44,000 that were made by UNICOR — also known as Federal Prison Industries.

Testing revealed that the helmets did not meet the Army’s ballistic standards. The company has suspended making helmets indefinitely, said Traci Billingsley, a spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The decision to stop making the helmets was made a few months ago, she said on Wednesday.

“I can tell you that the decision to stop making helmets was prompted by an audit by defense and an investigation by the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General,” she said in an e-mail.

On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Christopher Carney, D-Pa., called for a review of military contracts to Federal Prison Industries after the Army’s recall.

“Our military men and women deserve the best-made equipment and this recall further demonstrates the pitfalls of trusting prisoners with the lives of our soldiers and Marines,” Carney said in a news release on Tuesday.

Carney also questioned the Federal Prison Industries’ preferred status, which gave it the opportunity to claim contracts before they were offered to private industry. Gentex Corporation and BAE Systems, which make helmets, have large facilities employing hundreds of people in Carney’s district, said his spokesman Josh Drobnyk.

“We want to make sure that we protect the troops, first and foremost, and in doing so we looked at what was being provided to the troops and who was providing it,” Carney said Wednesday. “The folks in our district were providing a very good quality piece of equipment and FPI wasn’t making the grade.”

If Federal Prison Industries decides to make helmets again, Billingsley said, it will no longer have the first shot at contracts.

Carney called the company’s decision to stop making helmets a “victory.”

He said he is considering whether Congress needs to review all products that prisoners make for the military.

The helmet recall, prompted by a Justice Department probe, included about 20,000 issued to soldiers.  Earlier this month, the Army acknowledged it had no idea where the helmets were.

“They could be on some soldier’s head in Iraq or Afghanistan. They could also be anywhere else in the world,” said Brig. Gen. Peter Fuller, head of Program Executive Office Soldier, the Army’s center for advanced equipment.

Federal Prison Industries had two contracts with the Defense Logistics Agency, but stop-work orders were issued in February and no helmets were issued to troops.