You might prefer to think that the mozzarella on your plate and the wine in your glass arrive thanks to the efforts of a maître fromager and an erudite vintner, but you may actually have to thank a prisoner.
Today, a number of products are being produced by prisoners—food and wine among them. But opinion is divided about whether for-profit prisoner labor constitutes rehabilitation or a 21st-century version of slavery.
Last year Whole Foods pulled brands of goat cheese and tilapia from stores after activists complained that prison labor wasn’t in line with the company’s image of fairness and integrity. But prisoners still produce plenty of food that’s sold to the public, and much of it’s unlabeled—although Jeff Stultz of the Winery at Holy Cross Abbey said one of his lines of wine proudly purchases grapes from CCI—Colorado Correctional Industries.
Critics, including Michael Allen of End Mass Incarceration Houston, believe that for-profit prison labor is tantamount to slavery redux. “It’s all about race… taking advantage of disenfranchised communities. Their bottom line is to make money.” Professor Erran Carmel of American University, who conducted a study on outsourced prison labor, disagrees: “The [inmates] learn what it means to wake up in the morning and go to work. That’s quite important.” Studies show that recidivism rates in the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Programs, established by Congress in 1979, are lower than for inmates who don’t participate, though some say there’s an element of self-selection, with more educated inmates electing to join.
Still, many inmates pocket far below minimum wage, and aren’t given the right to organize or receive workers’ compensation, as are other American employees. Muddying the ethical waters further, American prisons are filled with a disproportionate number of black men. Alex Friedmann, the associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of Prison Legal News, told me, “You tend to see more of the agribusiness-type working the southern states. In some cases, prisons were built directly on top of old plantations such as Angola in Louisiana.” Director Ava DuVernay’s new documentary, 13TH (after the constitutional amendment that outlawed slavery, except for convicted criminals), makes the point that prisons have become the new plantations.
Friedmann said, “Nobody tracks the numbers of prisoners making food products,” but “the main products are mostly agricultural.” While most are used in the prisons, he said, “in Washington State, prisoners pick apples…in Florida, they package meat products.” Some may end up in your home.
Tonight’s hors d’oeuvres? It’s possible they’re being sourced from your local penitentiary.