By Chris Zoukis
Visit the website for Haystack Mountain, a Colorado-based goat cheese manufacturer, and you will find information about fancy chèvre and other tasty products. The “Our People” section includes profiles on cheesemaker Jackie Chang and other staffers at the 25-year-old company. The site also mentions their incarcerated workers – Colorado prisoners at the Skyline Correctional Center who start out at $.66 a day, milking about 1,000 goats.
Haystack is one of a growing number of businesses that benefit from contracting with corrections departments across the country for cheap prison labor. Whereas almost all prison industry programs once produced products and provided services for government use, agencies like Colorado Corrections Industries (CCI) now make prison labor available to private-sector companies.
Prisoners produce apple juice, honey, custom fishing rods, fancy redwood canoes and even specialty motorcycles. They raise tilapia, milk cows and goats, grow flowers, tame horses and manage vineyards. Nationwide, prison labor is used to produce more than $2 billion worth of products each year in both public and private industry programs.
CCI employs some 1,600 prisoners at 17 facilities, generating around $65 million in annual sales. Haystack Mountain is just one of many small- to mid-sized businesses that benefit from prisoner labor; the company began purchasing milk from prison goat dairies at the Skyline facility in 2007.
“They have land. They have human capital, the equipment. If you can think it up, they can do it, and do it fast,” said John Scaggs, Haystack’s director of sales and marketing, referring to CCI. The company sells a variety of cheeses, including its Summit Collection priced at $89.
“People are incarcerated and then forced to work for pennies on the dollar – compare that to what the products are sold for,” argued Michael Allen, founder of End Mass Incarceration Houston, which has protested the sale of goods made with prison labor.
On the other side of that argument, studies indicate that prison industry programs have had a positive effect on reducing recidivism. In a 2011 case study involving over 100 prisoners, less than 10% reoffended within three years – significantly less than the national recidivism rate. There was also a correlation between the longer a prisoner worked while incarcerated and how likely he or she was to reoffend upon release.
“Our best workers tend to be the murderers – because most of the time it’s a crime of passion,” stated CCI Director Steve Smith. “They’ve made a mistake and now they’re trying to make up for it.”
According to Smith, there has been steady interest from companies that want to partner with CCI. While he gets one to two calls a week from prospective businesses, he says that he declines those that are simply looking for cheap labor. CCI not only helps its private-sector partners save on labor costs; it also generates revenue for the state government.
Thanks to the grapes harvested by Colorado prisoners, Abbey Winery won a silver medal for its Juniper Valley Chardonnay at the 15th Annual Grand Harvest Awards in California. Haystack cheeses are sold to various high-end stores and restaurants, including Whole Foods, a national grocery chain.
Kathy Abernathy of Arrowhead Fisheries, which breeds, packs and ships tilapia though CCI, sees the program as a way to “help an inmate improve his life.” The CCI fish farm has been expanding and produces trout, catfish, koi and goldfish. Quixotic Farming also buys tilapia from CCI for less than a dollar a pound, which they then resell to retailers like Whole Foods, where it is sold for up to $12 a pound. [See: PLN, Aug. 2010, p.43].
Not everyone is delighted by the activities of CCI and the use of prison labor by private-sector businesses. Whole Foods become the target of public outrage when it was revealed they sold cheeses and fish produced by prisoners; the grocery chain announced last year that by April 2016 no more prison-made products would be sold in its stores.
According to Haystack’s website, “inmates learn valuable skills they can use for gainful employment in dairies, production facilities, farms and ranches upon release.”
However, critics have voiced doubts about the “valuable skills” provided to workers in prison industry programs. For example, a large portion of Colorado’s prison population comes from major cities, not rural farming areas, and will likely return to city locales once they have served their sentences.
“I see exploitation,” said Brett Dignam, a professor at Columbia Law School and an advocate for prisoners’ rights. “Most of the people populating our prisons are from concentrated urban environments where it’s unlikely they’ll be able to use those skills.”
PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann raised similar concerns. “Part of the argument as to why we have prison industry programs is to teach prisoners market skills to help them find jobs when they get out,” he told Vice.com. “That’s a great selling point, but the problem is it’s not really accurate. How many tilapia farms are there in Colorado where they can get jobs…?”
Prison wages in Colorado are marginally better than the unpaid prison labor in Georgia, Florida and Texas, but not remotely close to minimum wage. Slavery may have been abolished over 150 years ago, but “involuntary servitude” is a constitutional form of criminal punishment supported by the 13th Amendment. [See: PLN, June 2016, p.26].
Despite sometimes hazardous work conditions, prison industries are subject to few federal regulations. The prisoners participating in such programs are underpaid, prohibited from unionizing and sometimes work under the threat of disciplinary action if they refuse. Further, the reduced labor costs give businesses that partner with CCI an unfair market advantage compared to their competitors, which must pay at least minimum wage and adhere to workplace labor and safety standards.
Beyond the debate involving Whole Foods, protests as to the growing use of prison labor have largely fallen on deaf ears. When the use of prisoners as a cheap workforce will end is anyone’s guess, but in the meantime Haystack Mountain has said it will begin obtaining milk from non-prison sources so it can continue selling its cheeses to Whole Foods. Which provides an indication of the company’s priorities.
Sources: www.fortune.com, www.takepart.com, www.cbsnews.com, www.npr.org, www.haystackgoatcheese.com, www.denverpost.com, https://nextshark.com/, www.culturecheesemag.com
This article originally appeared in Prison Legal News in July 2016.