One of my daughter’s favorite stuffed animals is a chocolate-colored, beady-eyed buffalo that was stitched—lovingly, I like to think—by the hands of a convicted felon. The buffalo was born in Cañon City, Colorado, on the grounds of a large rural complex of six state prisons with a total of 4,000 inmates. Some of those inmates manufacture cute toys. Others tend real buffalo on feedlots and dairies outside in the mountain air. The goal, said Steve Smith, the prison-labor program’s mustachioed director until his retirement in December, is to convert the prisoners through labor into productive citizens. “This is a therapeutic community,” he said. “We’re trying to make them into taxpayers instead of tax burdens.” He channeled the Book of Isaiah, or possibly Ozzy Osbourne: “No rest for the wicked.”
The most familiar prison work programs involve stamping license plates or breaking rocks as part of a chain gang. As head of Colorado Correctional Industries, or CCI, Smith was responsible for thinking bigger and more creatively. And during a morning drive around the campus of his prison, it was clear he has succeeded wildly by building one of the strangest labor colonies in the modern world. None of its workers can leave without being chased down by men with shotguns. They toil in dozens of industries, ranging from fiberglass construction to floristry to the husbandry of Hungarian partridges, and a large portion of their products are niche, even artisanal.
By keeping the products unlabeled and unnoticed, prison labor systems all over the country have skirted uproar over whether prison labor is fair and just.
The Cañon City prison complex has numerous industries on its sprawling grounds, which are so large that from most vantage points you can’t see the prison fences. It has the country’s largest water-buffalo dairy. If you have eaten buffalo mozzarella in this country, there is a very good chance you have eaten the product of inmate labor. Supermarket chains sell tilapia raised in enormous vats on the prison’s grounds. Inmates stitch sweatbands, craft zebra-wood fishing rods, and collect honey for sale. Because the prison wants to keep its industries small and its captive labor market unnoticed—especially by private competitors and by the consumers who buy, eat, wear, or cuddle their products—their goods aren’t marked as the product of indentured labor. If you have profited from the work of a person in chains, you almost certainly don’t know about it. And by keeping the products unlabeled and unnoticed, prison labor systems all over the country have skirted uproar over whether prison labor is fair and just.
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.”
The inmates are desperate for the work and the minuscule payment they get. James E. Scott, 42, was 23 years into a sentence for murder, and I was fairly sure he intended a double meaning when he told me that “most people here have earned their time here.” (Scott was released in January.) He was admitting that he did the crime and deserved his captivity. But he also meant that his years of good behavior counted for something—and that his job as caretaker of partridges was a coveted one, and one he equally deserved. “I was a kid [when I committed my crime], and I had a bad night,” he says. He had a tiny bird perched on his shoulder, and he touched it lightly. “In most prisons you don’t get this kind of freedom. And it helps us hold on to our humanity.”
Steve Abernathy, whose tilapia-farming business is staffed by current inmates at Cañon City, told me that at least one of his ex-employees has been released and now manages another fish-farm as a free man. “It makes a world of difference for these guys. One guy told me, ‘I never had a job in my life [before Cañon City]. Stealing cars was just too good.’”
Another prisoner, 36-year-old Shenaniah Woodall, says the stigma of being a criminal makes rehabilitation hard to achieve. “The worst thing you ever did is tattooed on your forehead,” he says. He has been locked up for nearly all of the last 12 years, most recently for a drugs and aggravated robbery charge. Now he works in the prison gift shop—which is open to the public—selling products that are almost painfully banal. Many of the items are knickknacks you’d expect to see in suburbia: barbecue aprons, simple wall decorations, a wooden sign that reads KEEP CALM AND DRINK WINE.
The only other employee in the gift shop is a middle-aged woman who seems completely at ease working with a recovering heroin fiend. Woodall told me that the social contact with free people has been invaluable. “There are staff members who, within the boundaries and structures here, I’d call my friends,” he said.
As a matter of law, there is little ambiguity about prison labor. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States specifically permits involuntary servitude “as a punishment for crime.” So prisons could feasibly pay their inmates nothing at all—and in fact that is the going rate for inmates working in prisons in Texas and Georgia.
From nearly the beginning of America’s existence, prison labor has been viewed as intrinsic to the process of punishment and rehabilitation. “The prison system has always been tied to labor in some sense,” says Alex Lichtenstein, a scholar of labor and penal history at Indiana University. Eastern State Penitentiary, the creepy super-prison that is now a Philadelphia tourist attraction but once held thousands of inmates in monastic conditions during the 19th century, was among the first to compel its residents to work. They made handicrafts alone in their cells as part of their penitence. Later, Lichtenstein says, prisons began using a model that more closely resembled a factory, and the prisoners were meant to work to pay off the financial cost of their crime.
Lichtenstein describes today’s largest state prison-work programs, such as those in Texas, as essentially “enormous corporations” operating with slave-like labor. The state itself gobbles up most of the fruits of that labor (a so-called “state-use” system of prison labor, whereby the items produced are used by the government). The vast majority of prisoners work only within the prison system, laundering each other’s clothes, cooking and serving food to each other, mowing lawns and serving as firefighters at their own facilities. They often do work for other parts of the state and federal government as well, for example by building furniture for state offices. For these services, the inmates typically earn 50 cents or less per hour, but often much less. These in-state systems face no federal regulation.
The prison industries that sell goods that reach consumers themselves, as Colorado’s do, are a small fraction of prison labor as a whole. Similar to the state-use system, when goods remain in state, the regulations are relatively lax. But when sold beyond state lines, they fall under a federal arrangement called the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP, better known simply as PIE). PIE, which has existed by statute since 1979 and employs inmates in about 35 state prison systems, stipulates that laborers must receive prevailing wages, which are theoretically no lower than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. But after taxes, fees, mandatory savings, and money confiscated for restitution or other court-ordered payments, few prisoners receive more than $3 per hour.
PIE programs are, in most respects, the ones most carefully managed with an eye to inmate rehabilitation and positive social outcomes. The prisoners are supposed to learn skills that make them employable on the outside (in capacities other than as, say, drug dealers or hitmen). Some studies of PIE programs suggest that they can give inmates a boost in their work outcomes outside prison. A 2010 paper by economist Robynn Cox, now at Spelman College, found that PIE participation may help inmates get jobs faster after their release and increase their earnings.
But a state can get around PIE regulations by selling to in-state businesses, who then process or re-package the products and sell them elsewhere. For example, Cañon City goat milk is sold to a Colorado company that makes goat cheese for sale both in and out of state. And even when PIE regulations apply, some inmates say the work can be far from edifying. Alex Friedmann, now an activist and managing editor of Prison Legal News, spent a decade in prison for armed robbery and other violent crimes and worked in a PIE-certified business that produced, among other things, Batman T-shirts for a Taco Bell promotion—endlessly silk-screening the profile of the great fictional crime fighter as penance for his own crime. His fellow inmates did even more mindless labor, such as inflating basketballs, one after another, all day. He views the skills-training mission of the work programs largely as a sham. “Many of the industry jobs don’t really impart job skills,” he says. “They keep guys busy, but they aren’t getting real-world job experience that will make them employable on the outside. License plates are mostly made in prisons, so you have to return to prison to do that job.” There aren’t many jobs raising partridges on the outside, either.
That, it turns out, is a consequence of design. Both PIE and state prison industries are generally required to ensure that their chosen industries won’t crowd out existing private firms. If you stick with industries with very little domestic competition, you can elegantly skirt that problem. Game-bird and dairy-buffalo husbandry are two industries so underrepresented in this country that no one much cares if you put prisoners to work in them at extreme poverty wages that would render competition nearly impossible.
Smith was frank about the strategy of keeping his businesses small, far beyond their production capability. “If I wanted to, I could have my prisoners build every desk and chair in every Wells Fargo in the country,” he told me. “But I don’t want to do that.” Wiser, he said, to stick with sectors that were invisible and niche, just small enough so that no one—not private enterprise, not organized labor, not consumers—would notice. “Prison officials don’t want to get into industries that will cause businesses on the outside to go to the media and raise hell,” says Alex Friedmann. Consumers are uncomfortable feasting on the products of slave labor; furniture companies tend to notice when they lose contracts that involve bidding on the open market; unions tend to protest competition from indentured servants.
Failure to manage backlash from organized labor has driven prison industries out of the private sector before, the labor historian Alex Lichtenstein says. “By the 1880s, prison labor was under a lot of pressure from unions, which always had ending convict labor on their agenda,” he says. They were anxious about cheap competition—not just from prisoners, but also from blacks and immigrants. “The prisons increasingly stopped producing for the open market,” Lichtenstein says.
The Colorado model is a way for prisons to get back into the civilian economy, in guerrilla fashion. Take Smith’s tilapia-farming operation. He feeds his fish a specialized diet. “Our niche is vegetarian and hormone free. We made a conscious effort to go into the health food market.” Colorado prisons produce 1.2 million pounds of tilapia a year, which Smith says is far less than their potential. But while CCI stays off the radar, that doesn’t necessarily mean its clients are so obscure: One of the prison tilapia operation’s primary customers is Whole Foods.
Mike Picchietti, president of the Americas Tilapia Alliance and the owner of a hatchery in Florida, explains that, because of the way CCI has positioned its tilapia products, the prison happens to compete most directly with suppliers in Latin America. He added that, without CCI’s abundant cheap labor, it would be difficult to raise warm-water tilapia in the cool air of Colorado—“like growing pineapples in Alaska.”
And it’s not just that Colorado’s prison laborers are cheap: Smith made clear that, as director of a prison labor program, he had more ways to motivate an employee than an ordinary boss. What would happen if a worker was late? I asked. “Straight back into the general population,” Smith said.
To most prisoners working for CCI, that fate would be an awful one: wages, safety, mental stimulation, and fresh air—all gone. No more birds on shoulders, just the clank of steel bars and the monotony of ordinary prison life. And everyone, including critics of the prison labor system, seems to understand that to close down prison labor entirely would be a tragic overreaction to some of the morally worrisome aspects of the prison labor system. “What’s the alternative?” asks Lichtenstein. “Have them sitting idle and lifting weights?”
At the same time, Lichtenstein says, employing incarcerated workers is a recipe for exploitation: “Prison laborers can’t join a union and are not subject to protective labor legislation. Prisoners can’t consent to experimental drug trials, so how can they consent to a labor contract?” He suggests that consumers organize against products of prison labor. “A lot of people I know are not going to shop at Whole Foods if they’re going to sell products grown by prisoners,” he says.
But remember that the tilapia, like most products, aren’t labeled as products of prisons. Often the rules say prison goods be marked as such—but only at the moment when they ship out the prison gates. Merchants are free to label only the wholesale crate, and not the packages seen by consumers. So overwhelmingly, the goods made in Cañon City have no prison markings at all. Organizing a movement against prison goods would require considerable sleuthing on the part of consumer groups.
Smith did tell me about one partner who insisted on a label showing his goods’ origin. I had asked him whether his prisoners’ wages were ever undercut by overseas sweatshop workers. He confessed that they could be. This particular partner made sweatbands—exactly the sort of product one would expect Bangladesh to produce for shockingly low amounts. The cost of production, he said, was similar. But Smith got the contract.
“If he made the product with us,” Smith said, “he could write ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ on the label.”
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Lead photo: Colorado Correctional Industries. (Photo: Barry Staver)