Do You Know Who’s Making Your Artisanal Goat Cheese?

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.

Take Action

If you’re against the exploitation of prison labor, please sign and share this petition telling Whole Foods to source their products elsewhere.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Barb K.
Barb K.3 years ago are these companies taking advantage of prisoners? They are guaranteed nothing once they are sentenced to prison and it's a known fact that this kind of interaction and responsibility decreases the rate of recidivism much the same as others who are training dogs for the blind. We don't owe them a dime, a program like this is more beneficial in getting them into a routine, maybe even teaching them a skill.

I think it's a good program and fail to see how anyone benefits unfairly; I only see the benefits of having someone potentially leave the system and not come back. That's a win for sure.

judith sanders
judith sanders3 years ago

@Eric L. The problem is that judges are sometimes cronies of the people who run the private prisons, and that means they have an incentive to incarcerate people. I don't see how there can be any justice if anybody profits from someone else being imprisoned.
Here's a summary of the "kids for cash" scandal, and you can bet that there are more examples where the participants are just a little slicker, and haven't been caught yet.

Simon Tucker
Simon Tucker3 years ago

One of the biggest issues for inmates getting out of jail is finding and holding down a job. Let's face it - a lot of the low paid manual jobs are boring and repetitive and these are the jobs that ex-prisoners are going to be most likely to get. Having a job inside prison that replicates the humdrum routines of work outside of prison is a good preparation for what they have to look forward to (for better or for worse) and, hopefully, will allow them to develop good lives away from criminality.

Rosemary Diehl
Rosemary Diehl3 years ago

I have mixed emotions about this one. Studies have shown that private run prisons scrimp so much that there is no quality of life in them and therefore no rehabilitation. This may be a way to show a prisoner how to make a living or become entrepreneurial once out. There are certainly worse things a prison could be doing.

Diane C.
Past Member 3 years ago

Hmm..issues on both sides. The title had led me to expect something rather trivial, so I appreciate the author taking a surprising direction. I do wonder about the extent prison labor is depressing wages, however (although this could be a good point in another context, or in another market).

Eric Lees
Eric Lees3 years ago

@Val What does it matter whether it is a private or public ran prison as long as they meet the standards? The justice system decides who goes to jail not the private prison.

@Merideth G. That's awesome, I'd like to find a raw milk source. It should not be up to the government what we put in our bodies.

Val M.
Val M3 years ago

Signed. Prisons should not be run by private companies.

Shalvah Landy
Past Member 3 years ago

Using inmates- translated to providing job skills.
Who decides what company will benefit from this???????????????
I have no problem with providing job skills!

Ron B.
Ron B3 years ago

Wow, I wondered this very same thing as I was gnawing on a big chunk of artisanal goat cheese today. What are the odds?

Nimue P.
Nimue Michelle P3 years ago

I don't eat it, never have.