Published: Nov 04, 2012 8:58 AM EST
Updated: Nov 05, 2012 7:31 AM EST

TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) - Factories that employ convicted felons are at the heart of a simmering debate about whether prisons should be siphoning away jobs - at much lower wages - that could be filled by those who need them during the nation's toughest period of unemployment in decades.

Congressional Republicans, a handful of Democrats and private-industry critics want to clamp down on Unicor. That is the trade name of Federal Prison Industries.

Almost 13,000 inmates work in federal lockups for a few dollars a day, making everything from military uniforms to office furniture.

Critics say Unicor undercuts private companies because of lower operating costs and laws that require federal agencies to use inmate-produced products when able.

Corrections officials say the program teaches prisoners invaluable job skills and personal discipline that cuts down on their return to prison.