On the heels of a public apology in June by Whole Foods CEOs over allegations that the store overcharges customers for seafood, produce, and other goods weighed by the pound, the grocery chain is now receiving a fresh round of criticism for its use of cheap prison labor to produce some of those goods.
Whole Foods is one of the buyers of fish and cheese produced by Colorado prison inmates through a unique prison labor arrangement in the state that allows inmates to work for the profit of a private corporation. Other companies, including Hyvee and Murray's Cheese, also sell products made by prison laborers, though recent attention has focused squarely on Whole Foods.
Under the arrangement, Colorado Corrections Industries — a part of the DOC that oversees labor and the sale of goods and services — enters into contracts with private businesses that want inmates to help with the labor of producing goods. Quixotic Farming is one of the vendors in contract with the DOC. The company, which says on its website is a family-owned tilapia farming company with farms in Colorado and northern Missouri, pays the DOC to have inmates construct fish tanks and then raise tilapia for it, according to the DOC. The department gets 85 cents a pound for the tilapia. Quixotic then sells to vendors that include Hyvee and Whole Foods. Tilapia was being sold for $11.99 a pound at Whole Foods on a recent day in New York.
Similarly, Haystack Goat cheese, which produces chèvre sold at Whole Foods, contracts with the Colorado DOC to have inmates milk and herd goats. The dairy is then transported to Haystack and transformed into cheese.
In both cases, the inmates are paid as little as 74 cents to as high as $4 a day for the goods and services made at CCI, according to Dennis Dunsmoor, director of the program. The base rate of 74 cents is the same prisoners in other jobs throughout the system make, but CCI workers can earn performance bonuses, he explained. Dunsmoor said CCI makes about $64 million a year, and employs about 2,000 inmate laborers.
The low wages paid to produce goods that sell for much higher prices to consumers has drawn sharp critiques from prison and labor advocates. But the program has also been hailed as a model for teaching inmates valuable work skills, and allowing them to earn a higher wage than other prison jobs — such as cooking or laundry duty. It has also been hailed for allowing the prison department to make back some of the money it spends on housing inmates.
"Ninety-seven percent of all offenders that come into prison will get out, and there's famous saying, 'pay me now pay me later,'" Dunsmoor told VICE News. "These guys are going to get back out on the street. A lot of these guys have never worked a job, never clocked in, never worked eight hours, and just that skill alone is very valuable, so we teach them that kind of work ethic."
Dunsmoor said the program, based on an enterprise fund, must be successful or turn a profit to continue. So, he says, the criticism of it being a profit-based labor system is not quite apt. He also said the CCI program cuts the recidivism rate for its laborers in half compared to the state rate.
"It's $30,000 to house an offender. If I saved one offender I've done a good thing," he said.
The public-private partnership is rare among prison labor arrangements, which typically see inmates producing goods to be used by other government agencies or through a federal program known as Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP, better known simply as PIE), in which companies employ inmates directly and must pay them "prevailing" wages — which can be as high as minimum wage, although fees are often taken out by prison officials, according to Alex Friedmann, the managing editor of Prison Legal News and a prisoner rights' advocate.
"It's basically exploiting prisoner's labor. It's strictly exploitation from our perspective," Friedmann told VICE News.
Friedmann and other critics say the use of cheap labor to produce goods sold on the free market by private companies is unfair for many reasons: cheap labor allows prisons and companies an advantage over those that must pay minimum wage or more, and prisoners are paid very little, have no way to organize for better conditions, must work under threat of harsh punishments, and often get no help with job placement after release.
"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. 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 when they get out?" Friedmann said.
"It's like on Orange Is The New Black," Alex Lichtenstein, a labor historian at Indiana University, said by way of explaining the problems of privatization of prison labor. He was referring to the Netflix series' depiction of inmates being hired by a private company to make underwear. In the series, the inmates aren't paid nearly as much as the underwear fetches on the open market, but they are paid more than prisoners with other work assignments.
"That's pretty good on the perils of privatization. It looks like essentially that penitentiary has been farmed out to a private corporation that is subcontracting to panty makers. It's ridiculous, but in terms of storyline it's pretty good. The inmates are all eager for jobs that pay a dollar an hour, but of course they all are being exploited in a prison-based sweatshop making things that are going to sell for much more," he said.
Whole Foods responded to the criticism by saying it sources tilapia and cheese from CCI as part of its mission to support communities, "and that includes the paid, rehabilitative employment of inmates at CCI. They are paid for their work, and learn job skills that can help them contribute to society in meaningful ways upon their release," the company said in a statement.
"CCI has even worked with a Seattle fishing operation to help place inmates in seafood industry jobs upon release. We're proud to partner with programs that offer a source of income for inmates and ultimately help them land on their feet," the company said.
And legislators in Colorado have touted the programs' benefits to both prisoners and the community, even though CCI isn't profitable.
Erran Carmel, a labor researcher and interim dean of the Kogod School of Business at American University, studied the inmate labor at a prison in Elkton, Ohio, to see how the practice of "impact sourcing" — or hiring marginalized individuals with few opportunities for good employment— played out among prison populations. The research showed that while there was an argument to be made that workers were being exploited, there was an equally valid point that prisoners were reaping the benefits of job opportunities.
"There are no absolutes on this. These are values that one projects on them," Carmel told VICE News. "In the case we studied, people were paid far more than all the other prison labor, like gardening and kitchen labor, and they were clearly benefitting financially, and that then led to all kinds of other secondary effects. They were respected in the community, they were able to help their families on occasion, even though they were not paid very much, and other benefits."
"Some of the prisoners had never had any type of work habits at all, like waking up in the morning and going to work in the morning," he said. The prisoners he studied in Ohio were working on a data digitization project on computers, not agriculture projects like those sourced by Whole Foods.
Still, Friedmann said the language used to persuade the public that prison labor provides job skills, offers inmates something useful to do, and allows them to learn valuable skills obscures the exploitation that is occurring. And the privatization of prison labor has always been problematic, Lichtenstein told VICE News. Just as coal magnates hundreds of years ago profited off of prison laborers used as cheap coal miners, today's profit-driven corporations can become richer without concern for the prison system or prisoners.
"One of the potential and unfortunate solutions to the mass incarceration crisis is a return to the 19th century prison labor setup, which is very bad idea," Lichtenstein said. "It puts convict labor up for use in private businesses that are interested in one thing and that's making a profit. They're not interested in rehab, or reducing the number of prisoners, or improving the prison system. They simply interested in getting labor as cheaply as they can."
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