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Raised in Captivity

An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to print and digital magazine subscribers.
(Photo: Barry Staver)

(Photo: Barry Staver)

That tilapia you just bought from Whole Foods, the buffalo mozzarella you ate last week—both were likely farmed in prison. Inside the artisanal food production at Colorado Correctional Industries.

Graeme Wood's Pacific Standard economics essay is currently available to subscribers—in print or digital formats—and will be posted online on Tuesday, March 03. Until then, an excerpt:

Colorado’s prison industries were established by statute in 1977. At present, CCI earns about $63 million per year, and as the prison-labor arm of the prison complex, it receives no taxpayer support.

Smith, 66, was CCI’s director for seven years. (He retired soon after this tour.) He met me in the prison’s parking lot. I anticipated that our tour of the fields and barns would leave my cuffs crusty with manure and dirt, so I wore jeans I didn’t care about. Smith dressed smartly, even nattily, in a dark business suit with a tie and tie chain. He started on this site as an ironworker nearly three decades ago, but he graduated to management and has mastered a range of obscure industries. As he drove us in his Dodge Durango from workstation to workstation, it occurred to me that this might be how it felt to accompany a feudal lord on a tour of his fiefs from the comfort and hygiene of a velvet-lined carriage.

“I look for a market and I figure out how to do it,” he said. The process involves finding suitable businesses in the private sector—Smith called them “joint venture partners”—then convincing them to use prison labor. Prison laborers take home roughly $125 per month at the top of the pay scale, or about a buck-fifty per hour. Smith showed me scores of modern-day serfs in green uniforms, working quietly and diligently against a mountainous green horizon. Some picked blackberries (“They get paid by the pound, because I don’t want them eating them”), and others tended vineyards of Chardonnay grapes. The Hungarian partridges, he said, were to sell to hunting clubs, which prize the birds because they pose more of a challenge than other feathered targets. “They’re smarter,” Smith said, “and won’t stand around like a stupid pheasant.”

A series of greenhouse-like buildings were devoted to aquaculture. We stopped in front of a vat of what looked like crayfish. “Red-clawed Australian lobsters,” he corrected me. The difference between that and a crawdad, he said, is that the Aussies have 33 percent meat by weight, versus 19 percent for their American cousins. We drove past a corral where prisoners were leading wild horses around a circular enclosure. For $900, Smith’s prisoners will break a wild mustang for you. In another area, prisoners gave obedience lessons to dogs. Drop your mischievous Doberman at the prison gate, and for $600 you can pick it up a month later, ready to heel and shake a paw. “We’ll train your dog,” Smith said, adding, with some mischief of his own, “just like we train the inmates.”

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