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Feds say contractor sold defective combat helmets built with prison labor

A recently-released investigation by the Department of Justice reveals that a company using prison labor to make life-saving equipment for the Pentagon sold more than 125,000 defective helmets to the services, some that even failed to stop bullets in ballistic tests.


The Justice Department's Office of Inspector General said a public-private venture between the government-run Federal Prison Industries and the civilian company ArmorSource LLC produced Advanced Combat Helmets and Lightweight Marine Corps Helmets that were "not manufactured in accordance with contract specifications."

"The investigations found that the ACH and LMCH had numerous defects, including serious ballistic failures, blisters and improper mounting hole placement and dimensions, as well as helmets being repressed," the report said. "Helmets were manufactured with degraded or unauthorized ballistic materials, used expired paint and unauthorized manufacturing methods."

The Justice report said ArmorSource failed to properly oversee the production of the helmets by federal prisoners and was forced to pay $3 million in restitution, while the Federal Prison Industries facility that manufactured the helmets beginning in 2008 was closed and the staff transferred.

In all, the report says 126,052 helmets were recalled costing the government over $19 million.

U.S. Army Spc. Demel Cooper, sights his M16 rifle on Feb. 25, 2016 at a military shooting range in Landsthul, Germany. Specialist Cooper and other soldiers at the range wore Advanced Combat Helmets and other personal protective equipment during the training. (DoD photo by Tech Sgt. Brian Kimball)

The Federal Prison Industries is a government-owned corporation formed in 1934 to give job opportunities and income to federal inmates. The products made by FPI are sold only to the U.S. government and it does not compete with private companies.

From 2006 through 2009, Ohio-based ArmorSource produced the helmets for the Department of Defense. ArmorSource was paid more than $30 million, then subcontracted production of the ACH and the LMCH to FPI in 2008.

The ACH is a personal protective equipment system designed to provide ballistic and impact protection U.S. troops. It's also designed to mount existing night vision, communication, and nuclear, biological, and chemical defense equipment.

Marines and sailors from Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, await extraction after completing a helicopter-borne raid at Basa Air Base on Oct. 15, 2006. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sergeant Ricardo Morales)

When FPI produced 23,000 LMCHs from its facility in Texas, the first 3,000 shipped in 2008 were found to be defective. Eventually, the Army's Office of Inspector General found FPI-produced ACHs were also defective.

The Army's IG investigations found "endemic manufacturing problems" at FPI. The facility in Beaumont, Texas, was not making the helmets according to specifications and both helmet types were full of defects, including:

  • Finished ACH helmet shells were pried apart and scrap Kevlar and Kevlar dust was added to the ear sections, and the helmet shells repressed  
  • Helmets were repressed to remove blisters and bubbles in violation of contract specifications
  • LMCH and ACH had edging and paint adhesion failures, respectively
  • FPI did not obtain approval from the DOD before it changed the manufacturing process
  • LMCH Certificates of Conformance were prepared by inmates at the direction of FPI staff and signed by FPI staff months after the LMCH helmets were delivered falsely certifying that the helmets were manufactured according to contract specifications and had the requisite material traceability
  • LMCH helmet serial numbers were switched or altered

The helmets were sold to DoD anyway, and FPI used pre-selected helmets for inspection, against the DoD specification that random items be inspected. ArmorSource did not provide oversight of the helmets' construction and did not ensure proper inspection of the product, the report says.

A surprise inspection of the Beaumont, Texas-based FPI facility found the inmates using a variety of improvised tools to build the helmets. This put the lives of those overseeing their work (as well as fellow inmates) at significant risk, the report says.

The Justice Department claims no casualties are known to have occurred because of the defective helmets.