State and federal inmates have long manufactured products like license plates and office furniture for the U.S. government, but thanks in part to the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP), which allows certified correctional agencies to form partnerships with private companies, prisoners around the country now produce everything from blue jeans to motorcycles to, increasingly, high-quality food.
Founded in 1979, PIECP is designed to “place inmates in a realistic work environment, pay them the prevailing local wage for similar work, and enable them to acquire marketable skills to increase their potential for successful rehabilitation and meaningful employment upon release,” according to the National Correctional Industries Association. Forty-one states have participated in the program as of December 2013, according to the most recent quarterly report. The National Institute of Justice claims the program prepares inmates for life outside and lowers recidivism rates.
But critics say the program is exploitative and takes jobs away from non-incarcerated workers to benefit prisons, which can withhold as much as 80% of prisoners’ pay for restitution and incarceration costs. Plus, inmates have no benefits or recourse if they’re mistreated.
Both massive corporations and boutique companies take advantage of the cheap labor — and the chance to say their product is “made in the USA” without specifying exactly where. Starbucks subcontractor Signature Packaging Solutions once hired Washington prisoners to package holiday coffees; in the 1990s, subcontractor Third Generation employed South Carolina inmates to sew lingerie for Victoria’s Secret.
Here are some products from small businesses that advertise sustainable, responsible practices — and are often less transparent about the inmates working for them.
1. Alfalfa (and “Premium Natural Beef”)
On its website, Five Dot Land and Cattle Company says it’s committed to providing “the best tasting beef California has to offer while working closely to promote stewardship of the land in a sustainable, environmentally conscious manner.” It’s been raising natural cattle for almost 15 years thanks to “low stress handling, proper nutrition and holistic management practices.”
It has also outsourced its alfalfa production to California inmates.
2. Cage-Free Eggs
Hickman’s Family Farms is Arizona’s largest — and only — egg producer. The “third-generation operation that began on Grandma Hickman’s backyard porch” says it uses “stringent methods of conservation and recycling to remain as environmentally friendly as possible.” A “supporter of the community,” Clint and the Hickman family “contribute to a variety of charitable efforts and causes year-round in Arizona.” They also employ prisoners.
Colorado Natural Eggs in Denver has sold cage-free “eggs with a conscience” cared for by inmates under NestFresh, which produces “certified organic and cage free eggs because we believe in doing business responsibly.”
(Hidden Villa Ranch acquired NestFresh in 2006 and said via email that NestFresh had ceased use of prison labor before it was acquired.)
3. Award-Winning Goat Cheese
Haystack Mountain partners with the Colorado Correctional Industries (CCI) inmate-run goat dairy in Cañon City to produce its “nationally recognized” premium, handcrafted raw and pasteurized cheeses. They’re available at Whole Foods.
4. Brand-Name Produce
5. “Jazz” Hybrid Apples
The McDougall & Sons orchard was one of the first Washington growers to plant Jazz apple trees when they became available in 2004. In 2011, they hired inmates to help out.
6. Whole Foods Tilapia
Whole Foods Market sources tilapia “only from farms that meet our unique, industry-leading Quality Standards for Aquaculture,” meaning “we know exactly where our farmed seafood comes from and who is doing the farming,” according to its website.
Arrowhead Fisheries, which sells to Whole Foods, breeds, packs, and ships tilapia through Colorado Correctional Industries.
7. Buffalo Mozzarella
Denver-based Leprino Foods says it’s the world’s largest mozzarella cheese manufacturer. They get their buffalo milk from the Four Mile Correctional Center in Cañon City, home to “what could very well be the country’s largest herd of domesticated water buffalo,” according to Harvest Public Media.