Prisoners in the US are part of a hidden workforce

A hidden path to America’s dinner tables begins here, at an unlikely source – a former Southern slave plantation that is now the country’s largest maximum-security prison. In a sweeping two-year investigation, The Associated Press found goods linked to 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. They are on the shelves of most supermarkets, including Kroger, Target, Aldi and Whole Foods.

Here are takeaways from the AP’s investigation:


PEOPLE OF COLOR DISPRORTIONATELY AFFECTED

The US has a history of locking up more people than any other country – currently around 2 million – and goods tied to prison labour have morphed into a massive multibillion-dollar empire, extending far beyond the classic images of people stamping license plates or working on road crews.

The prisoners who help produce these goods are disproportionately people of colour. Some are sentenced to hard labour and forced to work – or face punishment – and are sometimes paid pennies an hour or nothing at all. They are often excluded from protections guaranteed to almost all other full-time workers, even when they are seriously injured or killed on the job. And it can be almost impossible for them to sue.

And it’s all legal, dating back largely to labour demands as the South struggled to rebuild its shattered economy after the Civil War. In 1865, the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution outlawed slavery and involuntary labour- except as punishment for a crime. That clause is being challenged on the federal level, and efforts to remove similar language from state constitutions are expected to reach the ballot in about a dozen states this year.


WIDE RANGE OF BUSINESSES BENEFIT FROM PRISON LABOUR

The AP sought information from all 50 states through public records requests and inquiries to corrections departments, linking hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of transactions to agriculture-based prison labour 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. Many of these goods came from large operations in the South, though almost every state has some sort of agriculture programme.

Reporters also found prison labour 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 via multinational companies, including to countries that have been slapped with import bans by Washington in recent years for using prison and forced labour themselves.

WIDE RANGE OF JOBS

Almost all of the country’s state and federal adult prisons have some sort of work programmes, employing around 8,00,000 people, according to a 2022 report by the American Civil Liberties Union. The vast majority of those jobs are tied to tasks like maintaining prisons, laundry or kitchen work. Some prisoners also work for states and municipalities, doing everything from cleaning up after hurricanes and tornadoes to picking up trash along bustling highways.

But they also are contracted out to private companies either directly from their prisons or through work-release programmes. They’re often hired in industries with severe labour shortages, doing some of the country’s dirtiest and most dangerous jobs like working in poultry plants, meat-processing centres and sawmills.

The AP found that prisoners with just a few months or years left on their sentences work at private companies nationwide. Unlike work crews picking up litter in orange jumpsuits, they go largely unnoticed, often wearing the same uniforms as their civilian counterparts.

Incarcerated people also have been contracted to companies that partner with prisons. In Idaho, they’ve sorted and packed the state’s famous potatoes, which are exported and sold to companies nationwide. In Kansas, they’ve been employed at Russell Stover chocolates and Cal-Maine Foods, the country’s largest egg producer.

Though the company has since stopped, in recent years they were hired in Arizona by Taylor Farms, which sells salad kits in many major grocery stores nationwide and supplies popular fast-food chains and restaurants like Chipotle Mexican Grill.

WHAT DO THE COMPANIES SAY?

While prison labour seeps into the supply chains of some companies through third-party suppliers without them knowing, others buy direct. Mammoth commodity traders that are essential to feeding the globe 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.

The AP reached out for comment to the companies it identified as having connections to prison labour, but most did not respond.

Cargill acknowledged buying goods from prison farms in Tennessee, Arkansas and Ohio, saying they constituted only a small fraction of the company’s overall volume. It added that “we are now in the process of determining the appropriate remedial action.”

McDonald’s said it would investigate links to any such labour, and Archer Daniels Midland and General Mills, which produce Gold Medal flour, pointed to their policies in place restricting suppliers from using forced labour. Whole Foods responded flatly: “Whole Foods Market does not allow the use of prison labour in products sold at our stores.”

Bunge confirmed it had purchased grain from corrections departments but said it sold the facilities sourcing from them in 2021, so they are “no longer part of Bunge’s footprint.”

WHAT DO THE PRISONS SAY?

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 that can be used when they’re released and given a sense of purpose, which could help ward off repeat offenses. In some cases, labour can mean time shaved off a sentence. And the jobs provide a way to repay a debt to society, they say.

“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.

While most critics don’t believe all jobs should be eliminated, they say incarcerated people should be paid fairly, treated humanely and that all work should be voluntary.

“They are largely uncompensated, they are being forced to work, and it’s unsafe. They also aren’t learning skills that will help them when they are released,” said law professor Andrea Armstrong, an expert on prison labour at Loyola University, New Orleans.

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