Fellow foodies, here’s a question for your conscience: Do you wonder whose hands helped bring your meal to the grocery?
As you dollop the farm-fresh goat cheese on top of your microgreens and remove the antibiotic-free tilapia from under the broiler, would you lose your appetite if you found out that workers who helped produce it earn in a year what you make in a week?
Whole Foods worried that you might.
So the company announced that it was severing business relationships with suppliers that use prison labor to bring fish and cheese to some of the more than 430 Whole Foods stores in America. Yes, prisoners herd and milk some of those goats and peel the scales from that fish. And their pay is reportedly between 74 cents and $4 a day.
At first blush, that sounds appalling, but is it?
According to NPR, Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy in Longmont, Colo., and Quixotic Farming, a sustainable seafood company with facilities in Missouri and Colorado, partnered with Colorado Correctional Industries (CCI), a division of the state’s Department of Corrections, to put prisoners to work. According to the companies and CCI, it’s a way to teach inmates skills, give them valuable work experience and reduce recidivism — all good things, to be sure.
But a handful of well-meaning prison reform advocates in Texas, End Mass Incarceration Houston, caught wind of the relationships and staged a protest outside a Houston Whole Foods store.
By the following Monday, Whole Foods said it would stop carrying the inmate-labor products by April 2016, a decision reported widely by The Associated Press’ food industry reporter.
That’s a loss for inmates.
It’s valid to be concerned about low wages and about whose pockets are lined by the cheap labor, but the protest ran roughshod over another social and moral consideration: the duty of our prison systems to rehabilitate convicts. The Colorado program, like others elsewhere, is voluntary and was undoubtedly aiding inmates toward future employment by offering them on-the-job-training.
It’s tricky to pitch fair-wage arguments on behalf of inmates. After all, they are being housed, fed and cared for by the public, at considerable expense. The opportunity costs to inmates are negligible, but society has a huge stake in helping them become employable once they leave prison.
The concerns of prison reform advocates and businesses like Whole Foods don’t have to be at odds with each other. But companies have to be honest and open about their motives and not cave at the first hint of negative publicity. Are they solely motivated by lower-cost labor or is there a social goal as well that fits the company’s values? Given Whole Foods’ hasty retreat, one has to wonder.
This is not an isolated case. The for-profit corrections sector has blossomed over the past few decades, which means inmate labor accounts for more and more products and services. So the term “prison-industrial complex” is not just a conspiratorial myth.
Given that a massive bipartisan prison reform package was introduced in Congress the same week as the Whole Foods imbroglio, I wish the controversy would have been spun differently. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act should have offered the perfect opening to discuss how we can help inmates leave prison and lead more productive lives.
America is in dire need of prison reform. We have 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s inmates. It’s difficult for the average person to grab the enormousness of our penal system. The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition reports that more than 70,000 people leave Texas prisons every year. Another million more offenders cycle through the state’s local jails annually.
Most dismaying is that many will be back, locked up again due to a new offense or a parole violation. Imagine if more had a skill, a trade or a work history upon which to rely. There are ways that inmates can acquire that in jail. Yes, companies will make a buck off giving those inmates that chance — and perhaps we should discuss some regulatory guidelines about that — but it can certainly be a fair exchange.
Quixotic Farming, the fish company working with inmates in Colorado, described its philosophy aptly on its website: “We believe in teaching a man to fish and giving him a second chance.”
If that ever becomes the ethos of America’s corrections system, we’ll all be better off.
After this column was published, I was invited to participate in the following HuffPost Live discussion about prison labor.