Prison industrial complex in our food
February 10, 2024 7:18 AM   Subscribe

Modern slave labor at prison farms It's incredibly widespread. I wish the article had a list of all the companies that are using prison labor - the extent is shocking. CW for very upsetting read. More - ACLU report (starts with financial ask, sorry) Grauniad article less focused on food specifics
posted by leslies (25 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
I don’t know how much this is common knowledge, but in the Constitution, the amendment that banned slavery, banned it for everyone except prisoners. Knowing that, start reading about incarceration in this country.
posted by njohnson23 at 8:57 AM on February 10 [28 favorites]

Wait. You are telling me that in a country that has massive excesses by nearly every societal measure, wild injustices between economic classes, and a long love of cheap mass produced foodstuffs, we have a slavery problem to boot?


Contextually, the war on drugs takes on a whole new light.
posted by discardme at 9:08 AM on February 10 [11 favorites]

Thank you, leslies. I have kind of the same reaction to this article that I do to more specific instances of the same (e.g. ubiquitous slavery in the chocolate production chain): a sense of regret and hopelessness. I try to act against modern slavery when I can, but it is hard to do it everywhere, per TFA. I think the "they are learning valuable skills" line of thought is an uncomfortable truth that has to be weighed against the realities of the damage caused by the overall system, in the same way that all industrialized food production--and cheap oil--are a problem.
posted by cupcakeninja at 9:17 AM on February 10 [3 favorites]

Sounds like Douglas Blackmon's Slavery By Another Name is yet alive and well. This is my surprised face.
posted by y2karl at 9:31 AM on February 10 [5 favorites]

And it is happening in Greg Abbott's Texas. This is my extra surprised face.
posted by y2karl at 9:37 AM on February 10 [2 favorites]

i prefer to call it the war on drug addicts
posted by MonsieurPEB at 11:08 AM on February 10 [4 favorites]

I don’t know how much this is common knowledge, but in the Constitution, the amendment that banned slavery, banned it for everyone except prisoners. Knowing that, start reading about incarceration in this country.

That's the one thing that's weird as hell about Spielberg's Lincoln. It's so optimistic, but near the end Thaddeus Stevens reads the Amendment out loud and he gets to the bit about incarceration and it's this sudden sour note.
posted by brundlefly at 11:08 AM on February 10 [3 favorites]

13th is an excellent documentary about the 13th Amendment. Looks like the whole movie is on YouTube.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:11 PM on February 10 [9 favorites]

I spent 15ish months of the 5 years I was down working at a farm exactly like the ones described in much of the article. Former slave plantation, in the south, worked by hand, vast majority black prison population, COs on horseback (no shotguns though). If you eat asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, watermelon, kale, collard greens, cantaloupe, and strawberries to name a few it may have come from prison labor. They worked the shit out of us for like $.20 an hour, a portion of which the state kept and they'd steal hours from us constantly. There would be one DISGUSTING portapotty, no soap, for 50-100 men working a field for 10-12 hour days during harvest time. Those hands were handling the food, unwashed, so think about that for a second. We harvested all produce by hand, for stuff like melons they would run a tractor towing a cart behind it along the rows and we would place the melons in the cart. Everything else was hand cut and carried. We even had to use the sling blades for make work bullshit like cutting weeds along the fence line, even though there were weed whackers in the barn. Vultures circling overhead the whole fucking day. Absolutely no shade, just baking in state issue denim work suits (like the pic in the article). The only half way decent memory I have from that part of my stretch was when some busted up old hound dog wandered up to the barn during lunch time and I gave it my pink slime patty off my sandwich and he let me pet him for a couple of minutes. Called my people that night "yeah, today wasn't half bad, I got to pet a dog". I'd get paid something like $13.50 for a full weeks work, and all of that (and way more) would get spent on commissary and the phone. For context - a SINGLE SERVING pack of ramen noodles was $1.10 and a 20 minute phone call to a different area code was $5-$15 dollars (This was about a decade ago, I can't imagine how much shit costs now. Pay is the same). NONE of the food we grew / harvested was served to us. They'd give each group of guys a watermelon during lunch when it was in season, but that was about it. Prison food is inedible and I mean that, not hyperbole. Much of the "meat" was pink slime that came in boxes with labels that read "NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION" on it. A lot of other stuff came in boxes indicating that they were originally intended for Hurricane Katrina relief (which would have made it 10 years old at that point in time). Everybody who had any kind of hustle or money from the outside ate off commissary / bought stolen kitchen ingredients on the black market (the kitchen prepped food for the inmates AND the cops. Guess who ate better). Nobody learned any marketable skills, even though this prison billed itself as a low security, re-entry facility (meaning everybody incarcerated there had less than 5 years to go). Some of the country ass inmates already knew how to drive tractors and run drip tape, so they got those jobs. Everybody else picked watermelons, not a whole lot of skill required or job opportunities doing it when you get released to the city you came from. No other skill training or educational opportunities, no library, they had a fake ass GED program that I used to volunteer at as a tutor, but they'd cancel classes during harvest season, they were only 2 hours a week, they were self directed and not a single person even took the test, let alone passed while I was there. We were lucky in the sense that our facility was relatively new compared to a lot of places - we had air conditioning. Many of the prisons even farther south than I was don't. I spent 3 months in a place like that in the middle of summer doing 23 and 1 lock down, people were dropping left and right. Fucking absolute hell.
posted by youthenrage at 1:19 PM on February 10 [134 favorites]

Damn, youthenrage. God damn.

Not enough people have really internalized the fact that allowing prisoners to be used as slave labor means that you, citizen of the outside, are now competing with them for work. And there's just no way to be more cost competitive than an enslaved labor force that has no minimum wage and no rights. None. Letting that happen at all fucks over free people, it fucks over everyone. It fucks you, yes you, over. Pure and simple.

You can oppose prison labor for all sorts of good reasons, but one of them is naked working-class self-interest.
posted by mhoye at 1:31 PM on February 10 [32 favorites]

David Farabough, who oversees the state’s 20,000 acres of prison farms, said Arkansas’ operations can help build character.

“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,” he said. “We’re giving them purpose. … And then at the end of the day, they get the return by having better food in the kitchens.”
It is no coincidence that that is exactly some of the same rhetoric used to "justify" slavery.

Farabough was recently named president of the National Association of Institutional Agribusiness. Formed in 1951, "its current membership represents forty-two (42) states, the federal prison system, the District of Columbia, the United Kingdom, Belize and Canada." WTF Canada and the UK??
posted by jedicus at 1:59 PM on February 10 [13 favorites]

Hi it's your friendly California farmer chiming in to say, this is so fucking horrendous, but not surprising at all. The USA is hooked on cheap food. We spend less as a percentage of income than most other first world countries.

In my little agricultural region (The Pajaro and Salinas valleys), we don't use prison labor, which my cynical self says, is probably due to the lack of big local prisons. Instead, all the local farms around rely on a most illegal immigrant population from Mexico, Jalisco and Michoacan mostly.

You will all of course be shocked to learn these laborers are also often overworked, underpaid, have wages withheld, safety compromised and sexual assault is rife as well. Even the farmers I know and respect for treating their workers well (and I do try so hard to be in that group), face the simple fact that the market will not pay us well enough for our produce to pay people a living wage, with benefits and vacation. I don't pay even myself a living wage, not by far. I am living off my former tech career, full disclosure.

Basically, this country has always been fed by slave labor, and our baseline expectations of what food should cost is set by that shameful history.

Now, you may think, but wait, if food prices doubled or tripled to include decent worker wages, I couldn't afford to eat, nooooo! That's a valid fear, and I get it. However, in this country, though the Farm Bill, we subsidize a lot of corn that gets turned into ethanol, a terrible idea, and grain that gets fed to livestock, which is just flatout inefficient. Fruits and vegetables get almost no subsidies and neither do workers rights. A complete overhaul of the Farm Bill could right a lot of wrongs.
posted by birdsongster at 5:37 PM on February 10 [52 favorites]

Every time I open a 14 oz can of vegetables or tomato sauce that the corps have downsized from 16 oz, every time I reach for a package of crackers in the "family size" box that holds 1/4 to 1/3 less than it used to, every time I open a bottle of orange juice or open a container of cottage cheese in the "new improved" smaller package, I think fuck corporations, fuck the CEOs, fuck the advertisers, fuck 'em all.

My grocery bill keeps going up and up. We hardly buy meat, no junk food--except ice cream, no pre-packaged meals, and yet for two seniors, we spend more than we did for four adults a couple years ago, and don't eat as well. How much money did big ag spend on retooling machines for smaller sizes, on new labeling, rebranding, and advertising, just on planning to screw consumers? They're plain evil, and we allow them to be that way. Our laws allow child labor, slavery, then we subsidize the bastards to boot.

At 75 and 71 we were planning on scaling back the garden this summer, with just a few tomatoes, a squash or two, a few peas and beans, some peppers. But this year's garden will be even bigger than the last couple years. But the price of seeds this year is crazy. We're just lucky we have the land and the water....
posted by BlueHorse at 11:48 AM on February 11 [7 favorites]

And there's just no way to be more cost competitive than an enslaved labor force that has no minimum wage and no rights

well, there is, it's called the [purposefully broken] US immigration system.

but i see birdsongster has posted on the connection

I really hope that journalists can keep the attention long enough to draw the connections to oil and gas labor in the South , a la Carly Berlin.

Here is a free hint: The Louisiana 's prisoner database is called CAJUN (Corrections and Justice Unified Network ) Please file your public records requests accordingly. Also, excuse me while I cry for my people.

The Oil and Gas Industry relies on plantation real estate. So, it's likely that a lot of the plastic you consume, while not made by prison labor, is made in that context. We have replaced sugar plantations in the US with our petrochemical manufacturing centers.

The current Louisiana governor is both a former cop and a labor broker for the LNG terminals.

It's not a surprise that he opposed EPA investigating pollution on these petro plantations in Louisiana, it's a surprise that USEPA silenced its investigation, likely in fear of the US Supreme Court.
posted by eustatic at 12:49 PM on February 11 [7 favorites]

I will add that the Farm Bill also does not include our fishers, who provide much of the local food in Louisiana. Thank you, again, birdsongster, for pointing to that policy tool as a solution.
posted by eustatic at 1:02 PM on February 11 [4 favorites]

It's even more evil than you think, guys.

People in prison can't eat the food they grow and pick and can't eat food that isn't rotting unless they spend money that they don't make. If they spend the money that way then they can't spend it on phone calls. Did you know prison emails charge? They do. Did you know basic hygiene objects also charge? They do. Did you know care packages to prisons are often not allowed unless they go through contractors approved by prisons that give prisons a cut? They do.

Did you know that the same rules apply to jails? That often people can't pay their bail because the money that would have gone to pay the bail has already gone to keeping people alive and communicating with their family?

Prisons are a cancer on the fucking land and one of the good things about having religious faith is a firm belief that someday everyone who keeps them going is going to answer before God for it.
posted by corb at 4:51 PM on February 11 [8 favorites]

This whole thing is just horrible and, while not surprising in that it exists, surprising and appalling in the scale it involves. The article doesn't seem to focus on the issue of incarceration for profit itself (privatisation of prisons), but it has to be at the heart of the problem. As soon as you allow prisons to become a business, the inevitable slide towards profit at any cost begins.

And there's just no way to be more cost competitive than an enslaved labor force that has no minimum wage and no rights.
This is what happens when governments create, protect and enforce a non-level playing field to protect the interests of those who own those governments. Farmers like birdsongster get pushed aside because they can't compete with slavery while the owners of large corporations that can afford to buy politicians wallow in swimming pools full of blood-stained money.
posted by dg at 5:49 PM on February 11 [4 favorites]

The article doesn't seem to focus on the issue of incarceration for profit itself (privatisation of prisons), but it has to be at the heart of the problem

So, tragically, from what I've seen, it really isn't. Public prisons also cut things to the bone: there may be slightly more of it in private prisons than in public ones, but not to any level where you would notice.

The issue is largely that legislators are both afraid to appear 'soft on crime' by being honest about the increase in the size of the prison population a particular crime bill will call for, and also afraid to appear like a reckless spender by being honest about how much money it would cost to do so humanely.

State legislatures generally set maximum amounts that can be spent per day per prisoner on food; these amounts are usually between 2-3$ a day, with some states spending between 1-2$ a day. That is for all 3 meals. This is one major reason incarcerated people are often served spoiled or rotting food. People without regular exposure to incarcerated people also do not understand just how bad prison food actually is. This report details that we are in many cases talking about food marked as "not for human consumption" and often meant for livestock, including
"moldy bread, sour milk, rotten meat, slimy bagged salad mix, and canned or packaged products years past their expiration date...weevils in grits, rocks in turnip greens, maggots in meat, a rat tail buried in one day’s entree, and oatmeal ladled up with human hair, pieces of metal, or cockroaches."
To incarcerate people humanely would cost significantly more and legislatures - and most likely, large sections of the taxpaying public - are currently unwilling to pay it. If you are, make your voice heard, but be aware you're pushing against the tide.

...Sorry, that was pretty fucking bleak. There's a reason public defenders are the corpse at the feast I guess.
posted by corb at 6:22 PM on February 11 [6 favorites]

The US prison system is as unusual and terrible as the health care system. Comparable to what we once called third world countries, but not even close to other Western countries. I feel there is something there, in the similarity of the failures of healthcare and incarceration, but I can't put my finger on it.
posted by mumimor at 7:28 PM on February 11 [4 favorites]

Prisons are a cancer on the fucking land and one of the good things about having religious faith is a firm belief that someday everyone who keeps them going is going to answer before God for it.

See now that bit, I'm a little jealous of, personally.
posted by Audreynachrome at 9:19 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]

I feel there is something there, in the similarity of the failures of healthcare and incarceration, but I can't put my finger on it.

It makes a lot more sense when you accept that there is zero sense of social responsibility in the US or even caring about other people and realize that the country is the embodiment of "you're on your own, buddy". Every other country with the resources wants to see their citizens healthy and rehabilitated, no so much here.

The profit motive doesn't hurt either, if there's one thing the US excels at finding a way to grift anything and everything for money.
posted by photo guy at 3:41 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]

one of the good things about having religious faith is a firm belief that someday everyone who keeps them going is going to answer before God for it

The Abrahamic God would, by all measures, be entirely okay with this. Hell, in both the Old and New Testaments, this sort of thing is specifically encouraged.
posted by Molten Berle at 10:11 AM on February 14 [2 favorites]

The United States was founded by enslaving genociders as a slaver Republic. The civil war simply added an administrative step to said enslavement. Seeing as publicly traded investment funds are some of the most slaver capital coded investment funds in existence, it would make sense that they would continue to trickle into spaces that function from their inceptive purpose.

The end game for the US slaver Republic is global enslavement. As it has always been.
posted by CPAnarchist at 10:21 AM on February 14 [2 favorites]

To add to this, when you consider that all inceptive and initiating capital in the United States was generated by stolen land and stolen people, you can identify two cohorts of capital: enslavers and best customers of enslavers. After the war, best customers still wanted those same low best customers still wanted those same best customers still wanted low labor costs, so it makes sense to half-ass reconstruction as they did.

For 2024, Republicans are the enslavers, and Democrats are the best customers. But there cannot be one without the other.
posted by CPAnarchist at 10:23 AM on February 14 [2 favorites]

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