Since January 1 of this year, California’s Proposition 2 has required all eggs sold in the state to come from chickens that live in more spacious quarters.
Any producer, whether in-state or out-, that wants to sell eggs in California has to raise its laying hens in enclosures large enough to allow the birds to freely stand up, lie down, turn around, and fully extend their limbs and wings.
California consumes more eggs than any other state.
It’s a large producer but still imports more out-of-state eggs than any other state, so the Prop 2 regulations effectively created a new national standard. Six of the big midwestern egg-producing states tried to invalidate the new rules and charged California with restraint of interstate trade. At this point most of the lawsuits and appeals have been dismissed, and producers are either conforming to the standards or selling their eggs elsewhere. In the meantime, the attention drawn to the issue has prompted some major egg buyers like Burger King and Starbucks to go beyond the requirements by vowing to switch to eggs from completely uncaged hens.
It’s more than a little hypocritical.
Chickens and inmates are both key to the California’s egg production, with prisoners processing around 35 million eggs a year from inmate-raised hens. Like its chickens, the state’s inmates live in confinement that can be inconsistent with acceptable standards of health and welfare. While we applaud the passage of Proposition 2 for improving housing standards for chickens, it also serves to highlight the inadequate and even inhumane housing of prisoners.
It was no small task for California to reimagine henhouses.
It involved input from architects and engineers, environmental scientists, climatologists, agronomists, and poultry specialists. They ran simulations and field trials evaluating chicken behavior, psychology, and physiology, ultimately increasing the minimum amount of space per chicken by 73%.
Clearly, laying hens have the full attention of regulators. Less so for the prisoners who tend to the chickens.
Their right to humane treatment is constitutionally protected, but relying on the old chestnut of cruel and unusual leaves a lot of wiggle room for pretty deplorable conditions. Currently, a prison cell can truly be smaller, relative to an inmate’s size, than a laying hen’s cage, relative to a chicken’s size.
You might be wondering why inmates are raising chickens in the first place.
Forget about license plates; prison labor has been used to make everything from IKEA furniture to Victoria’s Secret lingerie, and is especially welcomed in agriculture and food processing, including upscale and artisan food production. Inmates have packed bags of Starbucks coffee beans, and grown chardonnay grapes for award-winning wine bottlers. They’ve produced raw milk goat cheeses for high-end cheese shops, and raised the tilapia sold at Whole Foods Markets.
Correctional institutions and their corporate partners are fond of these arrangements. Depending on the circuit in which an inmate is incarcerated, the worker may or may not be subject to protection under the Civil Rights Act, and businesses can pay pennies on the dollar of prevailing wages. Whether you believe, as the courts do, that this is part of the penalty that criminals pay for their offenses against society, or you see this as codified exploitation and discrimination by an unjust prison system, the irony of inmates liberating their post-Prop 2 chickens is undeniable.
Litigation, advocacy, and public education worked wonders for California’s chickens.
Let’s see what they can do for another group of the state’s confined residents.