With a tight economy, dwindling agency budgets and past Congressional moves to weaken its preferential status, the prison manufacturing company has faced its own business pressures, closing down some factories and employing fewer inmates. Its overall sales fell to about $745 million in fiscal 2011 from about $772 million the year before, according to its annual report to Congress. Its net loss narrowed to $1.8 million from $56.3 million the year before, when it took $35 million in write-offs for defective helmets recalled by the military — still the subject of a Justice Department investigation — and for solar cells.
“F.P.I. continues to face the negative impact of economic and legislative forces,” the report says. “F.P.I. continues to address these external challenges through aggressively pursuing new customers and new products, involvement in legislative initiatives, capacity reductions and strict measures to control cash.”
The move into solar panels and other energy technologies is meant to help government agencies meet mandates for using energy from renewable sources and to “provide inmates with job skills in a new and growing market,” according to Julie Rozier, a spokeswoman for the company.
Across the country, some correctional facilities have begun preparing inmates for the green economy, offering training in solar panel installation and energy-efficient heating, ventilation and cooling systems. Inmates do not install solar panels, but assemble them; when fully operational, the plants in Otisville, N.Y., and Sheridan, Ore., can employ about 400 inmates and produce 75 megawatts’ worth of panels a year, Ms. Rozier said.
So far, response from the solar industry has been measured, with representatives saying that production is too small to pose a serious threat. A pool of trained solar workers might even be beneficial, the Solar Energy Industries Association says.
But industries that have long been competing against the federal company, like the clothing and furniture industries, are leaning on lawmakers to do something.
Chris Reynolds, president of Campbellsville Apparel in Kentucky, said he had contacted Senator McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, to express concern about possible competition for his military T-shirt contract, a move that inspired Mr. McConnell’s bill.
“My employees just cannot believe the fact that a prisoner who should be paying a debt to society is being promoted through the federal government to take a job from an American taxpaying citizen,” he said.