When you sit down to a cheese plate at a local restaurant or riffle through the dairy case at the grocery store, you probably are considering cost, flavor, whether the product is organic or hormone free, whether the milk was raw or how long it has been aged.
You probably aren’t asking whether the person who made it was behind bars or not.
According to a new report out by Fortune Magazine, the need for smaller, “boutique” type businesses to labor up but still keep their overhead low is causing them to look to outside sources in order to cut production costs. And when it comes to cheap labor, prisons have that in abundance.
Fortune profiles one Colorado cheese company that is using Colorado Corrections Industries (CCI), the state’s prison system’s workforce program, as a means to obtain low wage goat farmers. “[A] small Colorado goat-cheese maker called Haystack Mountain faced its version of a classic growth challenge: National demand was growing for its chèvres and other cheeses, and the company was struggling to find enough local goat farmers to produce milk,” reports Fortune. ”The solution came from a surprising source: Colorado Corrections Industries (CCI). Today six inmates milk 1,000 goats twice a day on a prison-run farm. After non-inmate employees cultivate the cheese at a company facility, it’s sold in Whole Foods outlets, among other stores.”
The cheese company isn’t the only benefactor, either. Kathy Abernathy of Arrowhead Fisheries, which raises and sells tilapia to stores, including Whole Foods, uses CCI to help her run her business. She calls the job program “a way to help an inmate improve his life,” because “[w]hether you like it or not, they are still American citizens, and they’ll be your neighbor when they get out.”
Providing job skills is definitely one way that companies can feel good about their use of the prison labor system, but there are other ways to develop skills that are less exploitative of those who are incarcerated. We’ve seen programs that help inmates develop technical know how to better equip them for real jobs in today’s job market after their release, or agricultural efforts that will grow the food to assist while they are in prison as well as give them skills once they are back outside in the general public.
Meanwhile, like most prison system labor endeavors, these “artisanal” efforts are as near as one can get to actual free labor with no repercussions. As Fortune notes, prisoners earn at best $300-$400 per month based off of an initial 60 cents per day wage, and have no ability to file complaints or gain other workplace protections. Meanwhile, the financial system inside a prison, where wages could be spent, are inflated in the opposite direction, such as phone calls that can be over $1 per minute.
Using prisoners as cheap labor doesn’t just take advantage of them, but deflates wages for others as those jobs are removed from the market. With a still large pool of people seeking employment, that doesn’t just detract from those workers’ ability to earn, but their own abilities to put money back into the economy through their own spending.
Is the ability to purchase goat cheese, tilapia and other high end artisanal goods worth the exploitation of those who are being used to produce it? That’s something we each have to consider as we pick up a package at a store and ask ourselves if it is prison-labor free.
If you’re against the exploitation of prison labor, please sign and share this petition telling Whole Foods to source their products elsewhere.
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