On October 15, 2009, the Wyoming Department of Corrections’ Wind River Mushroom Farm in Shoshoni was sold at auction for an undisclosed amount. The agricultural program, which began in 2004 as an $8 million public-private partnership that used state funds and federal loan guarantees, was once called the nation’s premier prison industry. It closed in 2006 due to “labor challenges.”
Initially the labor force was provided by prisoners from the Wyoming Honor Farm at Riverton, but they proved too slow at picking and sorting the portabello and crimini mushrooms grown at the farm. That prompted Doug Tanner, the farm’s president and CEO, to hire trained immigrants from Guatemala as supplemental labor. However, those workers left after a check by ICE revealed problems with some of their immigration documents.
Tanner blamed the state’s labor shortage for the farm’s closure. “I wish I had never seen the state of Wyoming,” he said. “I thought it was a great opportunity for everybody, for the inmates, for me and for DOC. But it didn’t turn out that way.” Tanner claimed the Honor Farm prisoners “didn’t want to work. They didn’t want to pick mushrooms.”
It may have been more accurate to say the prisoners didn’t want to work for the meager wages they were paid – $.12 per pound of mushrooms picked, or minimum wage of $5.15 per hour if they couldn’t make more at the piecework rate. “I had meetings with the inmates and said we had to get mushrooms picked to stay in business,” Tanner said. “They didn’t care. Instead of going faster, they slowed down even more.”
“It’s their job to manage the work force, establish guidelines, motivate the staff and the workers,” countered Billy Carter, manager of correctional industries for the Wyoming DOC at the time. “We were not involved and should not have been involved in running their business.” The mushroom farm was a Private Industry Enhancement (PIE) program, which allows private companies to use prison labor. While in operation it employed 40 to 60 prisoners.
The First Interstate Bank of Jackson had made a $3 million loan backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for start-up funding for the mushroom farm. The Wyoming Business Council had a $250,000 stake in the loan. The bank, which owned the farm, ordered the auction of 158 acres of land as well as structures and equipment that included three late-model modular homes, a 10,000-square-foot industrial shop and a 92,902-square-foot heavy industrial processing warehouse. Which illustrates the obvious that prison slavery is not a cost effective business and absent massive government subsidies is not economically viable.
The new owners of the Wind River Mushroom Farm said they wanted to establish a revenue-generating industry at the facility. “We are definitely going to try to create something that will stay in business rather than going out of business,” remarked Kenneth Hostetter, who bought the farm at auction.
Other prison industry programs in Wyoming include a tilapia fish farm at the Women’s Center in Lusk, a clothing factory and print shop at the State Penitentiary in Rawlins, and a program that produces PortionPac janitorial products.
Sources: Billings Gazette, www.trib.com
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