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Prison Labor and Artisanal Food


The prison-industrial complex finds new ways to generate profit. So it’s hardly surprising that probably the industry most exploitative of labor in American history–agriculture–is more than happy to take advantage. What may surprise some people is that it’s the high end artisanal food companies that cater to Whole Foods and other such stores who are involved. This story focuses on Haystack Mountain, a Colorado goat cheese company that is buying its milk from a prison company farm.

Says John Scaggs, Haystack’s marketing and sales director, referring to CCI: “They have land. They have human capital, the equipment. If you can think it up, they can do it, and do it fast.”

That diverse and nimble operation has attracted visits by officials from 22 prisons as well as steady interest from companies that want to tap CCI’s workforce. “I get one to two calls a week from companies,” says CCI director Steve Smith, adding that he declines those that simply want cheap labor.

The practice has long been controversial. Prisoners earn meager wages and have no recourse if they’re mistreated, LeBaron argues. Plus, they can take jobs from law-abiding citizens. “It’s hugely concerning in the face of economic instability and unemployment,” she says.

Counters Smith: “These are coveted jobs.” Base pay starts at 60¢ a day, but most prisoners earn $300 to $400 a month with incentives, he says. To be hired, inmates must get a GED and maintain good behavior for six months.

60 cents a day. In 2014. Now that’s the kind of labor exploitation I know from the history of American agriculture.

There was also this Twitter exchange between labor and justice writers Sarah Jaffe and Alexis Goldstein with some PR flack from Haystack Mountain who is not very good at his job because he reveals way too much. According to the PR person, Haystack Mountain isn’t even saving money on the milk compared to what they would pay on the open market, meaning all that money is going to the prison capitalists. Everyone wins but workers. And the idea that all these prisoners are earning skills they will take into the workforce of goat farming is so ridiculous as to be laughable.

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  • wengler

    I remember the first mention of the prison industry in Roger and Me. It’s not surprising though, especially if you are going to throw more than 1 percent of your working population behind bars.

  • Aimai

    I’m confused about how this makes any kind of financial sense–isn’t the government (taxpayers) essentially subsidizing the CCI and/or the goat cheese manufacturer with the goats, the feed, the milking implements, the administration, the land and the labor? Its not just the prisoners who are being exploited–how are the true costs of the inputs being valued? Who is paying for them?

    • wengler

      The way I understand it the government pays a set fee per prisoner per day to essentially throw people away into an understaffed, non-unionized prison facility. Considering Americans have been conditioned to treat convicts as rabid animals, there is very little oversight demanded or required.

      • Aimai

        No, sure. But the article specifically says that there is a fairly high cost in administration in terms of monitoring and controlling the workers and the machinery/tools. I don’t mean its a “real” cost of doing business, but it is a cost. Someone is paying those admin people–its not all slave labor. So who pays for that? My point is that I don’t think it sounds like the money the cheese cooperative pays for the milk covers that at all. I think the taxpayers are covering that.

    • Nobdy

      According to the story CCI is self-funded. There’s probably some savings to taxpayers and some patronage jobs created.

      Plus the companies get outsourced labor that has absolutely no access to any labor protections whatsoever (in many prisons refusing to do your job, as in a strike, can get you punished up to being put into solitary, which is torture) and a literally captive supply of labor.

    • Derelict

      Just one more example of socializing the costs and privatizing the profits.

      Given the way things are going in this country, I fear that this may actually be the future model for labor. Corporations presently have all kinds of power over their workers, including the ability to closely regulate off-the-job behaviors and even political activity. Prison labor is, in reality, just a step back to the old mill-town model of labor where workers lived in company housing, ate company food paid for with company scrip, and had little (if any) ability to leave.

      • Nobdy

        It’s much closer to slavery. At least in the old mill-town model people had families and communities and while leaving was hard they didn’t get to chase you with dogs and guns if you did try to break free.

        • john not mccain

          Slavery is so declasse. It’s merely human capital. Distressed in this case so it’s marked down. How commie do you have to be to complain about bargain prices?

          • John McCain McCain

            Americans won’t milk goats for 50 dollars an hour, three hots and a cot, my friend. They won’t do it. We have to import prisoners from Mexico to do these jobs.

          • UserGoogol

            That’s not what the phrase “human capital” means. It doesn’t mean the humans themselves, but whatever personal traits they have which might make them more productive. Generally speaking, prisoners being forced to work don’t have very much human capital at all.

            Human capital as an economic concept can be criticized as being an unhelpful way of thinking about the economy, but it has nothing to do with private prisons, and making misinformed attacks at them like that is just ignorant, and doesn’t help anyone.

            • UserGoogol

              I didn’t notice that it was John Scaggs who initially used that phrase in a weirdly ignorant way, so I guess he’s the shithead, so no need to attack you about that.

              • NonyNony

                You need to understand that when economists talk about “human capital” they mean something very specific (what you say above).

                But when a dickhead with an MBA is talking about “human capital” he means pretty much what Scaggs says in the quote above – a way to say “workers” without actually saying “workers” or “employees” or for that matter “people”.

                This kind of ambiguity causes all sorts of problems – especially when the dickhead with the MBA suffers from Dunning-Kruger (as most MBAs seem to these days).

      • Linnaeus

        What can be so bad about serfdom?

  • Nobdy

    Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” is a very interesting book, but in a lot of ways you can call mass incarceration the new slavery.

    America really does not care what happens to prisoners, and as long as an extremely disproportionate number of them are brown skinned (A situation that racist policies ensure) it seems like it never will.

    One of the greatest shames of the nation.

    Of course this particular scam hurts non-prisoners too, so you get a nice twofer of badly treated groups with prisoners and low wage workers.

  • NobodySpecial

    Hmm, let me see.

    Overwhelmingly minority population in bondage working agricultural jobs at laughable wages.

    Seems I’ve heard this somewhere before…..

    • DrDick

      Chain gangs are on their way back!

  • daveNYC

    Well… they could take those skills into the fast growing goat cheese industry, but those jobs are already being done by prisoners.

    • LeftWingFox

      Beat me to it.

  • FridayNext

    “Artisanal” is so 2013. I prefer “small batch” goat cheese.

  • Murc

    They have human capital, the equipment.

    Humans are not capital, you complete sack of shit.

    (I hate this term and regard its use by a person as a priori evidence that they’re a bad person and not to be trusted.)

    • john not mccain

      Oh hell yes!

    • elm

      The quote’s use of the term is poor. Human capital originally, and still usually in academic work, means investments of capital (money and time) into humans. Traditionally, it referred to the acquisition of job-related skills but expanded to include such things as health and even happiness. One of its primary uses is in the study of economic development where it is used to suggest that societies invest in improving education, health care, and the like instead of just investing in roads and bridges and industry. In that sense, it’s actually a progressive term, linked to broad-based poverty reduction and quality of life improvements missing in a lot of the theory and practice surrounding economic development.

      Don’t insult a perfectly cromulent term just because it can be misused.

      • Ralph Wiggum

        I didn’t know that. You learn something new every day.

      • NonyNony

        The quote’s use of the term is poor. Human capital originally, and still usually in academic work, means investments of capital (money and time) into humans

        That’s great, but that isn’t what the term means when an asshole MBA uses it.

        It’s a way for them to talk about their workers without using the term “workers” or “employees” or, as I mention above, “people”. The academic use of the term is unimportant for how it is being used by people in the real world to fuck with anyone who actually works for a living.

        It’s like the word “synergy” – “synergy” is a perfectly cromulent word that assholes with Marketing degrees have fucked up. Human capital is worse because it’s not just overly misused, it’s misused specifically as a way to dehumanize people when making business plans. And that sucks.

        • elm

          No, you’re right. The MBA version of the term sucks. But Murc said “I hate this term and regard its use by a person as a priori evidence that they’re a bad person and not to be trusted.” My point was that the original and still prominently used version of the term does not suggest a person is bad and not to be trusted.

          And, I guess, my other point was to be a pedantic know-it-all; since I don’t teach over the summer, I sometimes have to satisfy this need in comment sections.

          • Ahuitzotl

            and your excuse in autumn and winter is ? :)

    • wengler

      The firm is on the verge of failure. We will need to liquidate our human capital and sell it as a delightful gruel.

      • Lee Rudolph

        That Slut Soup isn’t just going to make itself, you know!

    • I work with a lot of very wonderful people, but I’ve noticed a creeping tendency to refer to people as “resources”. That I’ve kind of taken a wait-and-see approach with, biting my tongue, and where some people say “do you have resources available to help with this project” I try to say “can anyone help me with this project”. A while back someone sent an email using the word “asset” with the same meaning they might use “resource”; that is, to say “person”. That one alarmed me.

      Unfortunately these aren’t even managers, but just people who have learned that dehumanizing language is perceived as more professional.

      • As long as they don’t start liquidating assets when there’s a budget shortfall…

  • Yes, there are many stupid, confusing and just plain creepy business buzz phrases but Human Capital is up there on the list of terms that should trigger an instant “Oh Fuck You,” from all right-thinking human beings.

    Applying it to prisoners should spark a desire to kick the speaker somewhere soft and sensitive.

    • Haystack is crying foul.

      And may I also register my non-surprise that the libertarian fuckstain-helmed Whole Food$ is involved? I bet the idea of prison labor gets the old Fountainhead going.

    • liberalrob

      Human Capital is up there on the list of terms that should trigger an instant “Oh Fuck You,” from all right-thinking human beings.

      But that’s how they think. Prisoners (and workers in general) are just widgets, boxes on a flowchart. Things that cost money but are to some extent necessary parts of the production process. Cost centers to be minimized.

  • Happy Jack

    I’m not surprised that Loomis neglected to mention the benefits to the inmates. Reducing the scourge of idleness, learning the joy of becoming a virtual member of a board of directors.


    • Origami Isopod, Commisar [sic] of Ideology for the Bolsheviks

      … this is snark, right?

      • sharculese

        I’m going with yes.

        • sharculese

          But seriously I actually would love to hear what Erik has to say about that PowerPoint.

    • sharculese


    • sibusisodan

      Surely no prisoner could turn down the opportunity to weld and install steel prison cells for other inmates? For $0.60/d base pay.

      That’s a bit heart breaking.

      • sibusisodan

        And the way they blithely trumpet their ability to provide agricultural labour for private farms who are facing a shortage of immigrant labour! Kafkaesque genius.

        (Some of the skills used look really useful, and I’d have thought that this kind of training is really important in a mature justice system. But the whole for-profit, derisory wages is just unfathomable.)

        • liberalrob

          The landed aristocracy of the antebellum South did not to my knowledge imagine the possibility of a government-subsidized source of free forced labor with the potential manpower of our modern-day prison populations. Not in their wildest dreams. If they had been presented the option of employing prison labor instead of having to acquire, house, and sustain their own personal labor force of imported slaves, would they have felt the need to secede at all?

          Sure, why not use prison labor? After all, they’re “human capital” and they’re just sitting there. It’s inevitable that some bright bulb would think of this. Completely unsurprising. Yay, America!

        • But isn’t unemployment rate for ex-cons somewhere between craptastic and abysmal? So perhaps some prisoners are getting skills, but those skills become irrelevant once
          they’re get out.

          • sibusisodan

            Oh, yes, hence the caveats.

            I mean, a prisoner can become skilled at furniture making in this program. They can even – example in the powerpoint – create a custom series of furniture for the state governer’s office. For $0.60/day plus experience rating plus bonus!

            And then they get released? Then what? Do CCi care?

          • Tristan

            Well, it’s like someone joked upthread: if you learn skills in a prison-work environment, once you get out you have a set of skills for a job that’s already being done cheaply by prisoners. Your release from prison is also essentially your release from the field you are (now) best suited for.

      • Happy Jack

        Colorado can kill and torture inmates, so exploiting their labor seems almost, dare I say it, humane.

    • Whoa.

      Well, at least CCI isn’t hiding its business model. Really, why would it? What does it care what you and I think.

      I may have to post on this tomorrow.

  • Origami Isopod, Commisar [sic] of Ideology for the Bolsheviks

    I wonder how many “progressive” foodies who hear about this sort of thing will rationalize their decisions to continue shopping at Whole Paycheck? There are far too many well-to-do people in the food and environmental movements who don’t give a fuck about class or race issues.

    • Not ALL Astromen

      Ever eaten an out of season tomato? You’ve almost certainly eaten the fruits of slave labor. What are you doing about it?

      Well-to-do people giving slightly more of a fuck about class or race issues can only make so much of a difference when the whole food system is unjust. I don’t disagree that they should give more of a fuck, but it’s not a solution.

      • What has to be done is promoting the rights of the workers to have power. That can sometimes be through boycotts, sometimes not.

      • Origami Isopod, Commisar [sic] of Ideology for the Bolsheviks

        Of course I have. Yes, we’re all complicit in the current U.S. food system. However, there is something particularly galling about people who trumpet their patronage of stores like Whole Paycheck as somehow progressive or enlightened.

    • Anyone who knows anything about Rand Lackey Mackey and still shops there is unlikely to give half an organic, free-range, anti-biotic free fuck about what happens to prisoners.

    • I won’t say I never shop there but only when there’s some item I need that I just can’t get anywhere else.

      For one it’s just too damn expensive.

  • Steve LaBonne

    Remember the people who used to confidently predict the Chinese and American systems would converge? Guess they were right, though perhaps not in the way at least some of them envisioned.

  • dyspeptic

    if you’ve eaten eggs in Arizona, you have in all likelihood had the benefit of prison labor. This combined with the lack of due process that characterizes the Arpaio regime means that slave labor essentially exists in the US. New meaning to ‘Cage Free’

  • joe from Lowell

    The Prison-Industrial Complex is perhaps the only segment of American industry that isn’t working to removes workers from the process as much as possible.

    • wengler

      60 cents a day isn’t just competitive with China. It’s competitive with every place in the world.

      • Warren Terra

        The minimum wage in Bangladesh is about twice that (almost $40/month).

  • Larry

    “Factories with Fences” comes from the federal prisons bureau website from 2002 or so. I don’t know when it began or if it has been discontinued. But it’s a slogan the site used to promote prison labor for profit. They don’t even try to hide it.

  • Base pay starts at 60¢ a day, but most prisoners earn $300 to $400 a month with incentives, he says.

    That’s still only $10-$13 a day. That’s like responding to a claim that the only reading material a school gives the kids is a single issue of Cracked with “nonsense! It’s a single issue of MAD!”

  • Your move China.

    • Isn’t this where the Count Your Blessingers chime in? “At least it isn’t legal to torture prisoners! (For a given value of torture.)”

      See also: “Hey, they could be sitting in dark smelly little hole for years on end. Would that be better, huh??”

  • Rugosa

    I woke up extra cynical today. I absolutely believe that for capitalists, the ability to immiserate other human beings is as important as the profit motive.

    • No question. It’s a lot like American slavery: a good economic proposition for the owners, with the added bonus of reinforcing the racial hierarchy. Hence its defense by poor Southern whites.

  • JJH

    This is a little bit “assume a spherical cow,” but if you just distributed 100% of the profits from this operation to the prisoners upon their release…

  • Rob in CT

    Can you imagine the shrieks of outrage if it was proposed that these workers were to be paid minimum wage?

    Regarding the jobs being “coveted” well, hell, the alternative is nothing, right? Either way they’re deprived of their liberty, but one way they earn a tiny amount of money while they’re there.

    • Ahuitzotl

      Nah, easily countered – here’s your minimum wage check, with deductions for food and accommodation and security, oh look, you owe us $11/day.

      • Fraud Guy

        So, the company store model?

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