Forget about license plates.
Prison labor has been used to make everything from IKEA furniture to Victoria’s Secret lingerie. And of course there’s the inmate agricultural worker. We have an image of chain gangs working the fields under the watchful eye of guards on horseback—stereotypical but also historical truth. Mechanization put an end to most large-scale prison farms, but draconian immigration laws have created a new labor market for prisoners in the civilian agriculture and food-processing sectors, and prison-made foods are now a supermarket staple.
There’s a prison connection to much of what you eat.
Convicts have baked Sara Lee cakes and packed bags of Starbucks coffee beans. They make Louisiana hot sauce, lunchbox apple juice packs, and produce mozzarella for the world’s largest pizza supplier. Prisoners have even gone artisanal: they grow chardonnay and cabernet franc grapes for award-winning wine bottlers, produce raw milk goat cheeses for high-end cheese shops, and raise the tilapia sold at Whole Foods Markets.
The National Correctional Industries Association, which oversees partnerships between prisons and private companies, praises the prison-to-table movement for enabling inmates “to acquire marketable skills to increase their potential for successful rehabilitation and meaningful employment upon release.” Critics call it a thinly veiled return to slavery that displaces civilian workers while it exploits the poor and people of color who are disproportionately represented in prison populations.
Correctional institutions and their corporate partners are well-compensated through these arrangements.
The businesses are often paying pennies on the dollar of prevailing wages. They’re not paying benefits and aren’t held to the standards of civilian employers. Up to 80% of the wages can then be kept by the prison to cover the costs of incarceration. A full day’s labor might put a few dollars into a prisoner’s account, but the state can withhold those amounts for fines, court costs, and victim restitution.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Corporate responsibility, racism, social justice, corruption, immigration reform- take your pick.
But what do we make of cage-free egg producers who use prison labor?