After issuing a public apology back in June for overcharging customers for seafood and produce, Whole Foods is now getting a bad wrap for using cheap prison labor to produce goods such as cheese and fish.
The popular grocery chain is one of several buyers of products produced by Colorado prison inmates via a prison labor arrangement in the state. Hyvee and Murray’s Cheese are two other private corporations that contract inmates to work for them under the same arrangement, according to Vice.
Colorado Corrections Industries (CCI), a department of the DOC that oversees labor and sales of goods and services, signs contracts with private businesses interested in using inmate labor to produce goods. An example of this contractual relationship with the DOC is Quixotic Farming.
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The company claims to be family-owned and operated for tilapia farming in Colorado and northern Missouri, but according to the DOC, Quixotic Farming pays to have inmates build fish tanks and then raise their tilapia. While the department gets a measly 85 cents a pound for the fish, Quixotic supplies vendors such as Hyvee and Whole Foods, who then sell it for an arm and a leg to consumers. Recently, tilapia was being sold for $11.99 per pound in New York.
On the short end of this stick, inmates are being paid anywhere from 74 cents to $4 a day for their hard labor. According to Dennis Dunsmoor, the director of the program, the base rate of 74 cents is what inmates earn in other jobs throughout the prison system, but CCI workers are able to earn bonuses for performance as well. The CCI makes a profit of about $64 million a year employing approximately 2,000 inmate laborers.
On one hand, prison and labor advocates are decrying this business arrangement as a form of slavery. Others are praising it as a valuable model for teaching inmates work skills and providing opportunities aside from the usual prison jobs such as cooking and laundry. The program also allows the department to make back the expenses on housing inmates.
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Dunsmoor, for one, believes the program is fair, as he told Vice:
“Ninety-seven percent of all offenders that come into prison will get out, and there’s a famous saying, ‘pay me now pay me later.’
“These guys are going to get back out on the street. A lot of these guys have never worked a job, never clocked in, never worked eight hours, and just that skill alone is very valuable, so we teach them that kind of work ethic.”
Alex Friedmann, a prisoner’s rights advocate and the managing editor of Prison Legal News and, has a different opinion:
“It’s basically exploiting prisoner’s labor. It’s strictly exploitation from our perspective.
“Part of the argument as to why we have prison industry programs is to teach prisoners market skills to help them find jobs when they get out. That’s a great selling point, but the problem is it’s not really accurate. How many tilapia farms are there in Colorado where they can get jobs when they get out?”
Critics who share Friedmann’s concern believe the use of cheap labor to produce goods sold by private companies is unfair because prisons and private companies have an advantage over those who must pay minimum wage for the same labor. In addition, prisoners are paid little to nothing for their work, have no way to unionize for better conditions, and work under the threat of being punished.
Whole Foods released a statement regarding the arrangement and explained that it is a part of its mission to support communities which “includes the paid, rehabilitative employment of inmates at CCI. They are paid for their work, and learn job skills that can help them contribute to society in meaningful ways upon their release.”