By April 2016, Whole Foods will no longer sell food, including goat cheese and tilapia, produced by prisoners. The new policy will end the franchise’s working relationship with Colorado Correctional Industries.
As of 2014, 2,000 inmates were working in 17 CCI facilities. Much of the labor has contributed to farming and artisanal food industries, with prisoners feeding fish and milking and herding goats. Whole Foods has benefited from inmate labor since 2011, purchasing food from private vendors — Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy and Quixotic Farming — that are contracted with CCI.
Whole Foods has branded itself as a values-oriented franchise. One of its marketing campaigns states, “We want to have the information to make meaningful choices about what we decide to buy and support. We want people, and animals, and the places our food comes from to be treated fairly.”
Company spokesman Michael Silverman echoed that mission statement, telling the Associated Press that the purpose of partnering with CCI was to “help people get back on their feet and eventually become contributing members of society.”
But many of the inmates participating in CCI labor programs earn 74 cents a day for hours of labor. Others put the number at 60 cents. The CCI website notes that the labor program is designed to equip inmates with on the job training, skills development, and a sound work ethic. But the extremely low wages make it nearly impossible to afford prison services and basic necessities.
“[We] are charged by DOC three dollars for every medical request and ten dollars for any emergency,” one inmate who supports job expansion and higher pay explained to Westword News. “We are rationed three rolls of toilet paper each month, which requires extreme conservation, or forces us to purchase at least one fifty-cent roll from the canteen each month. Which leaves us very little for canteen necessities such as basic hygiene, a few stamps and a pen and a tablet and envelopes.”
Meanwhile, the Colorado Department of Corrections rakes in 85 cents per pound of tilapia, while Whole Foods sells the fish for $11.99 per pound. And a state audit found that the program’s earnings have not been used to fund prison maintenance or operating costs, as intended.
Taking into account all of the working inmates in the U.S., prison labor yields $2 billion per year. Jobs include shoveling giant piles of snow for 20 cents a day, fighting fires for $1.45 to $3.90 a day, and scrubbing scrubbed bathrooms, showers, and toilets for $1.
While Whole Foods will no longer profit from inmate labor, big-name corporations will still continue to reap the benefits of the prison industrial complex, including McDonald’s, Wal-mart, and Victoria’s Secret.