US Food Chain Rides Heavily on Backs of Prison Labor

Major companies are making bank off forced labor: AP
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 29, 2024 1:17 PM CST
US Food Chain Rides Heavily on Backs of Prison Labor
Agricultural fields surround a cell block on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary on July 21 in Angola, Louisiana.   (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

In a sweeping two-year investigation, the AP found that goods linked to the forced labor of US prisoners wind up in the supply chains of a dizzying array of products, from Frosted Flakes cereal and Ball Park hot dogs to Gold Medal flour and Coca-Cola beverages. They're on the shelves of most supermarkets, including Kroger, Target, Aldi, and Whole Foods. Many of the companies buying directly from prisons are violating their own policies against the use of such labor. But it's completely legal, dating back largely to the need for labor to help rebuild the South's shattered economy after the Civil War. Enshrined in the Constitution by the 13th Amendment, slavery and involuntary servitude are banned—except as punishment for a crime. Takeaways from the AP's investigation:

  • People of color are disproportionately affected: Goods tied to prison labor have morphed into a massive multibillion-dollar empire, extending far beyond stamping license plates or working on road crews. The 2 million currently imprisoned are disproportionately people of color. Some are sentenced to hard labor and forced to work—or face punishment—and are sometimes paid pennies an hour or nothing at all. They're often excluded from protections guaranteed to almost all other full-time workers.
  • The businesses that benefit: The AP linked hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of transactions to agriculture-based prison labor in state and federal facilities over the past six years. Those figures include everything from people leased out to work at private businesses to farmed goods and livestock sold on the open market. Reporters also found prison labor in the supply chains of giants like McDonald's, Walmart, and Costco—and in the supply chains of goods being shipped all over the world, including to countries that have been slapped with import bans by Washington for using prison and forced labor.

  • Wide range of jobs: The country's prison work programs employ around 800,000 people, and the vast majority toil at tasks like maintaining prisons, laundry, or kitchen work. But inmates also are contracted out to private companies in industries with labor shortages, doing some of the country's dirtiest and most dangerous jobs in poultry plants, meat-processing centers, and sawmills. In Idaho, they've sorted and packed the state's famous potatoes. In Kansas, they've worked at Russell Stover making chocolates.
  • From the companies: Mammoth commodity traders like Cargill, Bunge, Louis Dreyfus, Archer Daniels Midland, and Consolidated Grain and Barge have been scooping up millions of dollars' worth of soy, corn, and wheat straight from prison farms. Cargill acknowledged that, adding that "we are now ... determining the appropriate remedial action." McDonald's said it would investigate links to any such labor, and Archer Daniels Midland and General Mills, which produces Gold Medal flour, pointed to their policies restricting suppliers from using forced labor. Whole Foods responded flatly that it "does not allow the use of prison labor in products sold at our stores."
  • From the prisons: Corrections officials and other proponents note that not all work is forced, and that prison jobs save taxpayers money. They also say workers are learning skills, potentially shaving time off sentences, and given a sense of purpose, which could ward off repeat offenses. "A lot of these guys come from homes where they've never understood work and they've never understood the feeling at the end of the day for a job well done," said David Farabough, who oversees Arkansas' prison farms.
Much more here. (More prison stories.)

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