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Articles / The Unseen Role of Prisons in Our Food System

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The Unseen Role of Prisons in Our Food System

Published May 9, 2024

Coercive prison labor programs (modern slavery), food as punishment, and the companies who really benefit from it all

Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez/Getty Images

The phrase “a well-deserved meal” isn’t just a platitude, it is an acknowledgement of the relationship between work and reward. The irony of our American food culture, though, is that many of the people most deserving of a good meal are the least likely to get it. Perhaps the clearest example of this fact is the forced labor programs in our prisons, many of which involve agriculture.

Prisons run labor programs throughout the country. Some of these are mandatory, with no payment to the prisoner at all, and those that do pay may offer between ten cents and sixty cents an hour. In those programs involving agriculture, prisoners can be forced to raise cattle, keep bees, grow produce, and maintain grounds on prison-owned farms, or they can be leased out to farms owned by private companies. The harvest is then sold and shipped off to some of the country’s largest food distributors. The saddest part of this story is that prisons then provide inmates with highly processed and often terrible (and, of course, unhealthy) food, produced specifically for use in prisons. 

Slavery By Any Other Name

Prison labor programs have their roots in Reconstruction and the Thirteenth Amendment. Most of us think of this Amendment as the one that abolished slavery, and it did do that—but with a caveat. It read, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, [emphasis added] shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 

Photo: WIN-Initiative/Neleman

So the Amendment was expertly written to maintain aspects of our political and economic systems specifically designed to meet America’s need for cheap/free agricultural labor. The Amendment effectively made the individual ownership of slaves illegal, but it also offered companies and wealthy farm owners the option to contractually lease convict labor and pay the prisons directly, spending far less than they would have to if using non-incarcerated workers. 

The opportunity to reintroduce recently freed people to the plantation, the railroad line, and the chain gang was too savory an option to pass up. But to take full advantage of it, you had to have a vast number of prisoners. In order to justify the amount of incarceration that America’s blossoming and labor-intensive industries demanded, the nation was willing to dramatically broaden its already loose definition of criminality. Loitering, trespassing, looking white women in the eye, and talking back all became grounds for incarceration. 

Just as individual people can become institutionalized after a long stint behind the wall, America has conformed ideologically and economically to the existence of the prison-industrial complex. Criminal deservedness—the idea that those who do something that we define as “wrong” deserve their punishment—has become an economic driver that allows America to overlook our dependence on prisons. While the definitive numbers on prison labor in agriculture have been largely mysterious, we’ve recently learned more about which states, brands, and producers benefit most from this phenomenon.

An Essential Part of Our Food System

In order to grasp how integrated prison agriculture is within our food system, we have to take a step back and understand the network of incarceration centers across the country. Between state and federal prisons, local jails, immigration and juvenile detention centers, and tribal land and military jails, there are currently over 1.9 million people incarcerated in the United States1. Not only is there a complicated legal system with its roots in racial capitalism that drives mass incarceration, there is also a mix of incentives within the prison network that promote various versions of convict leasing, agricultural labor programs, and coercive labor practices. 

Among the vast network of institutions within our carceral system, at least 662 adult detention facilities have active agricultural labor programs2.  Prison agriculture has been an historically lucrative industry across the South and that remains to be the case, as Texas, Georgia and Florida have the most prisons with agricultural labor attached to the institution2. However, the rest of the country isn’t without blame. Every single prison in Colorado, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, and Washington has incarcerated people working in agriculture2. Still, there is little research around exactly how many people are laboring within the prison agricultural system. Some states have reported loose numbers in unofficial statements, like the Colorado Correctional Industries claiming to have had at least 800 incarcerated people working in their agriculture labor programs. 

Photo: David Jennings/Getty Images

While it’s nearly impossible to get a grasp on the nature of the labor for each person in each labor program in each state, we can still get a solid understanding of the way prisons justify their labor programs. Work requirements, vocational training, and community service (as a mandatory condition of sentencing) are the reported leading drivers for agriculture labor programs in the South, Northeast/West and Midwest respectively2.  

Whatever the justification for each of these programs, the bald fact is that prison labor generates over $2 billion in goods and $9 billion in services every year3. Only a portion of this revenue is made from agriculture, but it is worth highlighting a few key points about prison agriculture labor and revenue. Between 2018 and 2024, about a dozen prisons that run cattle-raising programs generated over $60 million dollars4. In 2020, during the height of the COVID epidemic, it was reported that over 100 imprisoned women were moved from their prisons directly onto a warehouse owned by Hickman’s Family Farm, with whom the prison held a labor contract, to work directly on site. This contract is estimated to be worth just under $6 million a year4. A comprehensive analysis done by the Associated Press reports that they traced over $200 million in agricultural sales directly linked to prison labor within the last six years4

Granted, these numbers don’t paint the full picture—it’s just what can be traced definitively. To offer a more tangible perspective on how interconnected our food is with prison labor, consider the fact that imprisoned people in Alabama are leased out to work for Tyson Foods, Hillshire Farms, Jimmy Deans, Sara Lee, and meat production companies that service McDonalds, and that many of the food brands for which imprisoned people supply goods end up in Target, Whole Foods, Aldi and Costco4. Several of these corporations have made commitments to avoiding foods made by prison labor, but recent research points to the possibility that they did not follow through4.

Wages and Food

For all the money generated from prison agricultural labor, accounted for and otherwise, the people laboring get next to nothing. Among all paying jobs within prison and as extensions of labor contracts, the average prisoner can expect to make under fifty cents an hour7. There are many states that do not pay for prison labor that exists within the walls of the prison, such as kitchen work. Whether or not the prisons pay for labor at all largely depends on administrative loopholes within varying pipelines from prisons to the workforce. 

Photo: Rick Loomis/Getty Images

In addition to being poorly paid (if at all), prisoners are also poorly fed. Only about 20 states actually use food grown by inmates in prison kitchens. In 2020, Impact Justice ran a study asking inmates about their access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Over 62% of inmates surveyed said they rarely, if ever, have access to fresh vegetables, and 54% said the same about fresh fruits9. In terms of general well-being, imprisoned people are six times more likely to suffer from food-born illness as well as being significantly more susceptible to diabetes and heart disease when compared to the rest of the American public9

Food is also used as punishment in the carceral system. Withholding meals is an age-old practice for breaking the minds of prisoners and is still a method for increasing conformity amongst imprisoned people. While certain states prohibit withholding food from inmates, at least 36 states require or allow “alternative meals” as a form of punishment9. The meal replacement Nutraloaf hit headlines around 2010 as activists considered it unethical to deprive inmates of enjoyable food and purposefully make them eat something that is virtually inedible for humans. Nutraloaf has been reported to include a variety of kitchen scraps blended together and baked into a lasagna-type patty, and is often served in a paper bag with no condiments or seasonings. The ingredient list has included, but is certainly not limited to, spoiled vegetables, ground chicken, flour, oatmeal and margarine. Aside from Nutraloaf, the ACLU reported that prisoners were deliberately given broth and rotting sandwiches as punishment meals11

What Needs to Be Done

The issue of the American prison food system is the issue of the global food system. We have collectively allowed food to be taken out of the hands of people and to be used for economic and political leverage across the globe. Our American food system is set against a backdrop of a social hierarchy in which poor people, immigrants, and imprisoned people take up much of the space at the bottom. Perceiving prison conditions as separate from the larger condition of a country ignores the actual function of the governing system. Food should be food. Food should be nutritious, nutritious food should be accessible, the people who labor in the food system should benefit from their labor and, overall, food should definitely not be a punishment. These are not lofty ambitions for a perfect future but intrinsic truths to a well-functioning food system. Our lives as free citizens are currently made easier and cheaper by prison labor and imprisoned peoples’ lives are made to be more difficult and unjust by our food supply chains. If our intention is to be more conscious and connected to our food, we have to address where and how it is sourced.