'Made in the USA’ Behind Bars: Is Prison Labor Really ‘Slave Labor’?


Razor wire lines the fence at the Theraputic Community at Arrowhead  Correctional Center in Canon City, Colorado. The center offers rehabilitation programs for both sex offenders and subtance abusers. Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Razor wire lines the fence at the Theraputic Community at Arrowhead Correctional Center in Canon City, Colorado. The center offers rehabilitation programs for both sex offenders and subtance abusers. Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The "fresh," "local," and "organic" tilapia being sold at Whole Foods grocery stores across Colorado was missing one last label: "Raised in prison."  

At the Arrowhead Correctional Center in Cañon City, Colorado, 120 prisoners work at the only U.S. egg-to-processing fish farm, raising tilapia and shrimp for sale at Whole Foods and other grocery chains. Inmate workers are paid less than a dollar a day to maintain the large holding tanks, and to harvest and clean the fish. 

When prison reform activists learned the fishy origin of Whole Foods' tilapia, there was outrage. Outside a Whole Foods in Houston, Texas, protesters hung signs reading: "End Whole Foods Market's Profiting From Prison Slave Labor." 

In response, Whole Foods pulled all products from its shelves that were made behind bars — including cheese made from milk from a prison dairy — even though the socially conscious company had originally partnered with prison industry programs believing them to be constructive forms of rehabilitation and job training. 

Whole Foods thought it was doing a good thing by selling prison-made products but protestors called it exploitative.
Whole Foods thought it was doing a good thing by selling prison-made products but protestors called it exploitative.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

That's certainly the stance of Colorado Correctional Industries (CCI), a division of the Colorado Department of Corrections charged with running inmate labor programs at 20 of the state's 24 prisons. One of CCI's stated missions is to "train inmates in meaningful skills, work ethics and quality standards which better enable them to secure long-term employment after release from prison." 

Thanks to CCI programs, around 1,600 Colorado prisoners are employed as horse trainers, forestry firefighters, furniture builders, tractor mechanics, canoe makers, LED manufacturers, beekeepers and more. 

But are these workers, who are paid pennies a day and supervised by armed guards, really gaining marketable skills, or are they exactly what the Whole Foods protesters say they are — "slave labor?" 

Surprise, Slavery is Legal -- At Least for the Incarcerated

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution formally abolished the practice of slavery and indentured servitude in America. Or did it? Read the text of the 13th Amendment carefully and note the significant exception (italics added): 

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." 

"The 13th Amendment is largely credited for banning slavery in the United States, but it doesn't. All you have to do is read it," says Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center. "It specifically provides an exception. By its very wording, slavery does still exist, but it's limited to people who have been convicted of a crime. If you force them to work, that's prison slave labor." 

While the Whole Foods protesters might be disgusted with the idea of prison factories, the practice is entirely legal and as old as the nation itself. Since the late 1700s, American prisoners have been farming, maintaining roadways and stamping license plates for little or no pay as part of "repaying their debt to society."

Factories Behind Fences 

Today, almost all prisons have some sort of work program. In most cases, the jobs serve a dual purpose, to keep prisoners occupied and to help these large and complex facilities run smoothly.

That's why so many inmates are employed in food preparation, laundry, maintenance and repairs, janitorial services, landscaping, sewing inmate clothing, and even welding steel bars for the prison cells. 

But there are also prison "industry" programs run by federal and state governments that make products for sale to the outside world, mostly for government use — the military, public schools and agencies — but occasionally as partnerships with private companies that sell to the public, like the tilapia farm in Colorado. 

In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a progressive prison reformer, authorized the establishment of Federal Prison Industries Inc. (FPI), which formally created "factories behind fences" at federal prisons. State prison systems followed suit, creating entities like Colorado Correctional Industries, Texas Correctional Industries and Pennsylvania Correctional Industries. (PA prisons sell their bath and body products under the brand name Big House.) 

Fearing that cheap prison labor would undercut private industry, American factory owners and unions pushed for a series of laws in the early 20th century that limited the sale of prison-made goods to federal and state-run organizations. 

To keep prison factories competitive for government contracts, Congress passed the "Mandatory Source Provision" requiring that prisons get first crack at almost all federal contracts for goods and services: personal body armor, cafeteria tables, sweat pants, etc. If a prison factory can deliver a quality product on time, it automatically gets the contract.  

The Mandatory Source rule has been a thorn in the side of small American manufacturers for decades. In a 2012 CNN article, an Alabama clothing maker griped that FPI, also known as UNICOR, stole good-paying jobs from law-abiding Americans. Instead of earning $9 an hour making military uniforms, the jobs were going to convicted felons working for slave wages. Is that the American way?  

Land of the ‘Free' 

One thing that's unquestionably "American" is its love of locking people up. At the end of 2013, there were more than 1.5 million Americans in federal and state and federal prisons. In 2008 and 2009, when the incarcerated population was at its peak, one out of every 100 Americans was in jail or prison. 

Sean Pica calls this the "warehousing technique" of criminal justice. "We're throwing folks into prison for menial crimes for long terms and there's no end to this scenario," says Pica, executive director of Hudson Link, a program that delivers college courses in New York prisons. "As the populations keep growing and growing, we're painting ourselves a community into a corner. At some point, we're not going to be able to sustain this." 

Prison is expensive, too. In 2013, it cost an average of $28,893.40 a year to feed, clothe and house one federal prisoner. In 2012, the average expenditure for state prisons was $31,286 per inmate. With taxpayers picking up the tab, shouldn't we be looking for methods and programs that reduce the overall prison population by reducing recidivism? 

Work Works 

Say what you want about the ethics and economics of prison labor, but work seems to work. 

Shawn Bushway studies and teaches criminal justice at SUNY Albany and has written extensively on the effectiveness of prison work programs. According to the best data we have, the average prisoner has a 50 percent recidivism rate, meaning that there's a 50 percent chance he or she will reoffend after being released. For prisoners who have a job on the inside, the average recidivism rate drops by 20 percent. 

Those results are echoed by Colorado Correctional Industries(CCI), which runs the tilapia farm and dozens of other prison industry programs statewide. CCI calculates that inmates who participate in CCI work programs are 20 percent less likely to reoffend. If they work for CCI for more than a year, the recidivism rate is nearly cut in half.  

As impressive as those numbers are, Bushway is quick to deliver a caveat. Almost no studies related to prison work and recidivism include a control group. In other words, we're comparing the success rates of people who were motivated enough to hold a prison job to people who did not work at all. Is the low recidivism rate really "caused" by the prison job experience, or is the result of a self-selecting process? 

"It's clear that newly released prisoners who successfully complete work programs in prison do better than those who don't," says Bushway. "Is it causal? I don't know. But it's unambiguous that participation in these programs is correlated with greater success on the outside." 

A Pathway to Change 

The quality of prison work programs varies greatly from state to state and prison to prison. But perhaps what's more important than the demand level of the work, or the specific skills learned on the job, is the act of simply having a job. 

"Most people who enter prison haven't had a job in the year before they go to prison, at least not a formal one," says Bushway, who cites a Florida study that prisoners in that state averaged an annual income of only $1,200 to $2,000 from formal employment before incarceration. "Part of what they have to learn is how to show up to a job, how to do what you're asked, how to behave with your coworkers. Those are things you have to learn how to do at some point in your life." 

Paula Smith, an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati, echoes Bushway's belief that the job itself is not as important as the skills required to hold down a job.  

"It's not just about having a job and learning these specific work skills, although those can be important," says Smith. "What are all of the other skills that go into gaining and maintaining employment? How do I handle it when my boss tells me to do something or I have a conflict with a coworker? How do I deal with an accusation? A lot of those social skills can be acquired in prison work programs as teachable moments present themselves." 

When Smith analyzes the recidivism risk factors facing prisoners upon release, their employment status is only a secondary concern. Much more important to their success on the outside is their attitude and values, the people they hang out with, and their emotional and personality orientation (passive or aggressive, patient or impulsive). 

"Where you get the biggest payoff in employment programs is using the job training as a context to address some of those other risk factors," says Smith, who cites particularly impactful programs in Washington state and Maine, where the Department of Corrections operates a State Prison Showroom where the public can buy prison-made goods and crafts like a winter hat embroidered with "Maine State Prison" or credenza like the one below.

Maybe the Whole Foods protesters got it wrong. From the outside, it can seem cruel to capitalize on "captive" labor. But from the inside — where a sentence of five or 15 years might as well be an eternity, and the odds of escaping the cycle of crime and incarceration are low — a daily routine and a sense of responsibility might ultimately change someone's life for the better, even if it pays 60 cents a day.