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Whole Foods Farms out Fish Farming to Colorado Prisoners

A food vendor is involved in a partnership with correctional facilities in Colorado that employ prisoners to raise tilapia and trout, which are then sold to Whole Foods, a popular grocery chain.

About 120 prisoners at the Arrowhead Correctional Center, a minimum-security facility for drug and alcohol offenders, earn around 60 cents a day plus bonuses to farm the fish. That amounts to about $40 per month for prisoners employed in the Colorado Correctional Industries’ fishery program.

Tilapia are popular both with consumers, for their taste, and fish producers, for the ease and efficiency of space in which they can be raised. The Arrowhead program also raises shrimp. Another tilapia farming program operates at the East Canon Prison Complex, and rainbow trout are raised at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex.

Eight prisoners are employed at Buena Vista, which produces 200,000 trout a year. Some are purchased by the state Division of Wildlife and released into local waterways. The trout sold for consumption are first taken to the Skyline Correctional Center for cleaning and processing.

Not only do prisoners handle the farming of the fish, which is done in large greenhouses, but they construct the 12,000-gallon fiberglass tanks in which the fish are raised. “I’ve learned a lot about chemistry, pH, salinity, nitrites, ammo-nia. It keeps me busy and the days go by quick,” said prisoner Bart Garcia.

Only the male tilapia, which are larger, are sold for consumption. The female fish are used solely for breeding. The Arrowhead program began six years ago and is now the largest industry at the prison, with about 100,000 pounds of tilapia sold annually.

“Whole Foods has a high demand for U.S. grown tilapia and we are the only operation in the U.S. certified to their standard,” said Correctional Industries manager Dave Block. Prison staff are allowed to buy the fish at discount prices.

Prisoners involved in the program are supportive; still, some can’t ignore the similarities between their own situation and that of the fish confined in tanks. “They are trapped,” said one prisoner-turned-fish-farmer. “I kind of feel the same way.”

The tilapia sold at Whole Foods stores in Colorado are marketed as “local,” but their prison-based origins are not dis-closed – which, for people who don’t want to support prison industry slave-labor programs, might be considered a bait-and-switch.

Sources:,, Pueblo Chieftain

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