When many people think of prison labor, they get an image in their head of convicts stamping license plates for pennies an hour. In fact, however, prisoners are employed to perform far more tasks than the public thinks, including packaging coffee and fighting fires. Proponents of maintaining prison labor claim that giving prisoners jobs helps them earn some cash to fund their prison stay and also to find legitimate work upon release. That said, the treatment of inmate workers should be monitored closely, since they are often excluded from protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The United States tends to admonish other countries for abusing prison labor while looking the other way when the same thing occurs at home. Last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection fined stevia production company PureCircle for importing a product made with forced prison labor. Yet, when American companies use prison labor in order to keep costs down, they are usually ignored by the United States government.
Prison labor in farming and agriculture
The agricultural industry in the United States has a long history of using prison labor. The United States has grown dependent on cheap labor for its food system, relying on undocumented workers and minimum wage loopholes to keep production costs low. However, with the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration came a dearth of inexpensive undocumented labor, leading many farms to turn to convict labor to fill these gaps.
It is important to recognize the relationship between forced inmate labor and slavery. Many common crops (such as Idaho potatoes and melons) are grown, harvested and/or processed by prison workers through a system called “convict leasing,” which refers to states’ leasing out inmates in correctional institutions to private farms and factories as laborers. The practice began in the Reconstruction South when there were not yet enough prisons to accommodate all the convicts in a given state—most of whom were former slaves.
Convict leasing was largely banned in the 20th century, but has once more grown in popularity as immigrant labor has become harder to find. Multiple states have now passed legislation allowing agricultural businesses to use prison labor when they cannot find enough workers to hire, and most prison workers are paid significantly less than non-prison labor.
Located in Mississippi, Parchman Farm, one of the most notorious penal institutions in the United States is one of many prisons modeled after a Southern slave plantation that emerged in the early 20th century. Housing more than 1,000 inmates in its earliest years, it utilized the aforementioned convict labor and very quickly became a huge moneymaker for the state, earning $185,000 ($5 million today) in its second year of operation alone. To this day, prisoners at Parchman Farm are still expected to work the fields, growing fruits and vegetables instead of cotton.
Parchman’s legacy has been the inspiration for numerous books, movies, and songs including the classic films Cool Hand Luke and O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the popular 2017 novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. American folk musicologist John Lomax traveled to Parchman in the 1930s to record and preserve the legacy of the African American folk music sung by inmates.
It is important to note the difference between farm programs in prisons and the leasing of labor by agricultural companies. The Market Farm Apprenticeship Program at Mountain View Correctional Facility in Maine is an example of the former. Mountain View has an apple orchard and a vegetable garden that inmates learn to tend, and the produce they grow is then cooked within the facility and fed to the prison population. As another example, at Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas inmates can opt to participate in a skills-building horticulture certificate program while producing sustainable, organic food for the prison and nearby food banks. Prison gardens such as these are frequently lauded as therapeutic and healing, but some have alleged that they perpetuate many of the injustices within the American prison system.
The prison labor debate
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Most people know it as the amendment abolishing slavery. However, the qualifier, “except as a punishment for crime,” can act as a loophole that allows companies to employ incarcerated people for wages significantly lower than the federal minimum wage. Furthermore, some prison facilities still use forced labor—that is, prisoners who are made to work even if they do not volunteer to do so.
The increased use of prison labor in the food system has led to backlash from activists and people in the food industry who want to end the practice. Some advocates for social justice call the use of prison labor in agriculture “disturbing” because of the health and safety risks—such as pesticide exposure and heatstroke—inmates face when working in the fields.
Those who support employment of prisoners argue that there are many benefits to working while incarcerated. Perhaps the most obvious is skills-building; prisoners can learn trades and then ideally apply these skills upon release. Furthermore, working can be a break from the monotony of prison life.
Notable instances in the food industry
Numerous food companies across the country have used prison labor to cut production costs, but criticism from consumers has forced many of them to rethink the practice.
In 2015, Whole Foods was pressured into ending sales of products made by inmates in Colorado prisons: specifically, goat cheese from Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy and tilapia from Quixotic Farming. Many customers who shop at Whole Foods do so because they believe the company is more socially conscious and ethical than other grocery stores. Learning that some of the products they felt good about purchasing were actually sourced from companies with controversial practices upset many people.
Whole Foods explained their relationships with these companies by claiming that they supported the rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals through employment,, but they also stated that customer concerns drove them to end relationships with those companies; however, the companies did not stop using prison labor in response to Whole Foods’ decision.
These companies pay inmate employees very low wages, with a starting rate of $0.60 per hour. A representative from Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy argued that, paired with the cost of room and board (in prison), inmates are actually earning more than minimum wage (it should be noted that Haystack Mountain is not paying the Colorado Department of Corrections for inmates’ room and board).
One of the country’s largest food service companies, Aramark has been subjected to repeated criticism for both its use of prison labor and the poor quality of the prison food it provides. The company controls dining services in almost 40 percent of all US prisons and is known to use prison labor to prepare and package much of the food it provides. In 2019 prisoners in Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, California, sued the county for being “coerced to work for Aramark without pay,” but the suit is still pending as of the time of this publication.
Aramark also has numerous contracts with dining services at universities across the country, but their use of prison labor has left many students skeptical. Florida State University announced that they would contract Aramark to provide dining services in 2020, a decision that was met with widespread student disapproval. Some students at the University of Florida began a monetary boycott of Aramark, avoiding making purchases at on-campus dining facilities, after the school extended their contract for an extra year.
Because of the difficulty finding workers in Kansas, candy company Russell Stover turned to the Topeka Correctional Facility in April 2021 to recruit workers participating in the state’s work release program. Workers are paid $14 hourly, but the Topeka Correctional Facility takes a percentage of their wages for “room and board” (in prison), among other expenses. This leaves workers with a take-home pay that is lower than the state’s minimum wage. Furthermore, workers from the facility earn less than non-inmate workers, despite doing the same work.
International coffee chain Starbucks indirectly used prison labor for years by contracting Signature Packaging Solutions to package roasted coffee beans. Signature is known to hire prisoners in Washington State for Starbucks as well as the video game company Nintendo. When their use of prison labor was reported by Seattle Weekly in 2001, inmates were earning minimum wage, but it is unclear how much, if any, of their earnings was being taken by the prison.
Learn more about prison labor in the United States
- How Prison Labor Contributes to the US Economy (NPR)
- As Juneteenth Marks the End of Slavery, Lawmakers Turn Their Focus to Forced Prison Labor (Washington Post)
- The Counter series on prison labor in the food system
- Prison Labor’s New Frontier: Artisanal Foods (Fortune)
- Prison Labor in America: How Is It Legal? (The Atlantic)
- Op-ed: Despite Providing Respite and Healing, Prison Gardens Can Perpetuate Racial Injustices (Civil Eats)
- The Secret Jailhouse Garden of Rikers Island (The New York Times)
- Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice by David M. Oshinsky
- Prison Labor in the United States: An Economic Analysis by Asatar P. Bair
Videos & Documentaries:
- Prison Farming (NJ.com)
- Colorado Prison Labor Camp Raising Tilapia Sold at Whole Foods (Feature Story News)
- 13th dir. Ava DuVernay
- The Hidden Side of the Prison Labor Economy (Marketplace)
- Prison Labor on Farms (The Secret Ingredient)
- H. Claire Brown, Staff Writer for The Counter Discusses Prison Labor in Our Food System. (Food Sleuth Radio)