Prison system logic

Who really stands to gain from prison agriculture programs?

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Wild Horse Inmate Program. Photo courtesy Colorado Correctional Industries

When James Moore was incarcerated at Four Mile Correctional Facility in Cañon City, Colorado, he spent his weekdays riding on the back of a truck, tossing hay to horses or walking from stable to stable to water them. 

Moore was a part of the Wild Horse Inmate Program, a Colorado Correctional Industries (CCI) project in which incarcerated individuals care for, tame and saddle-train mustangs that have never had human contact. Sometimes people were injured getting bucked from a horse or falling from a truck, but still, it was one of the better prison work programs, Moore says. It allowed him to get out, and being around the animals was nice. 

It was also one of the highest-paying jobs in the facility. Moore estimates he made about $315 per month — more than the average, but still barely enough to get by. In some years, incarcerated people have generated more than $6 million for CCI through agribusiness programs milking cows, water buffalo and goats, harvesting thousands of tons of crops and training horses. Workers in “non-industry” prison jobs, according to the Prison Policy Institute, make as little as 14 cents a day. Some states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas — pay nothing.

Proponents of prison agriculture programs claim they encourage rehabilitation, reduce recidivism, promote mental health and provide job training. 

Former inmates like Moore have a more nuanced take.

“When you in that situation, it’s kind of a mind manipulation,” he says. “Like, ‘Oh, we’re offering you to go outside. We’re offering you to be around horses. We’re offering you to get out of [prison] for a little bit.’”

Researchers at Colorado State University’s Prison Agriculture Lab are taking a deeper look into different types of prison agriculture programs nationwide to build a clearer picture of who these programs actually benefit and how they reinforce the prison system and negative stereotypes about incarcerated people. 

“When you start to ask more questions and pull back the layers, it really shines a much harsher light on what’s going on,” says Joshua Sbicca, one of the lab’s co-directors. “It should force us to question not just prison agriculture, but the logic of the prison system itself.”

In a first-of-its-kind dataset published in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, CSU’s Prison Agriculture Lab found that more than 660 adult state prisons across the country had agricultural programs — nearly 60% of all state prisons. The team spent two years researching government data, annual reports, and interviews with the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC), prison wardens and administrators. The lab defines agricultural programs broadly, including field crop farming, food processing, animal agriculture, landscaping, beekeeping and equine programs.

‘By design’ 

Labor in prisons with little to no pay is nothing new. When the 13th Amendment banned slavery and involuntary servitude in 1865, it included an exemption for those held in confinement due to criminal conviction. Because of this, the American Civil Liberties Union says incarcerated people are under “complete control” of their employers, “lose the right to refuse to work” and lack protections against labor exploitation.

Sbicca says nearly every prison in the country requires inmates to work, and while only 2% of the nation’s prison population works in agricultural programs, they’re “fundamental to the development of the American prison system.” 

While it’s illegal to sell most prison-made goods across state lines, federal law has exempted agriculture since the 1930s.  An investigation by food-focused outlet The Counter in 2021 found that more than $40 million in transactions occurred between private food companies and prison agriculture programs since 2017, including major corporations like Cargill and the Dairy Farmers of America. 

Justin Allen, who now works as a community organizer at an Albuquerque-based nonprofit, was incarcerated in New Mexico for 17 years and worked on a now-closed farm at Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in 2013. 

Allen’s work on the farm usually involved cutting down trees and other vegetation in the heat of summer to help with fire prevention, or standing in water up to his knees for hours as part of an irrigation project. 

“There’s no refusing. Even if you get sick, you get a write-up. You get a misconduct report if you don’t show up,” he says. He estimates he was paid between 10 cents and $1 an hour. 

“None of this is broken. It’s by design,” Allen says. “[Cheap] labor is incentive for mass incarceration.”

Dominique Vodicka was first incarcerated in Colorado in 2001 and was in and out of prison for the next 15 years. She participated in a variety of work programs while incarcerated, including  K9 and cosmetology programs. 

According to Vodicka, there’s no sure bet you’ll get a job after release, no matter the type of training you’ve had.

“Some [employers] don’t even go against your convictions, they go against charges,” she says. “I went to Petco [because] I’m a master dog trainer. I’ve trained service dogs — totally experienced — and they say they’re a second-chance employer. They told me because of my background they would not hire me.”

Vodicka is now a peer-support specialist and intake coordinator at The Reentry Initiative, a Longmont-based nonprofit that offers wraparound support to formerly incarcerated people as they reenter the community

Colorado in flux

In 2018, Colorado’s Amendment A removed verbiage in the state Constitution that permitted slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime, which Sbicca, with CSU, says is changing the landscape of prison agriculture in Colorado. 

“We’re in this really interesting flux period where it’s hard to say what work behind bars looks like going forward, but it’s definitely had an impact on a lot of agricultural operations,” he says. 

There have been at least two lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of prison work requirements since the passage of the amendment in 2022. A new law, SB22-50, promised minimum wage to inmates participating in Colorado Correctional Industries’ Take TWO program (Transitional Work Opportunity), a day-release program that allows inmates to work offsite with various employers. At the time of the bill’s passage only about 100 of Colorado’s roughly 16,000 inmates participated in the program, but CCI’s website currently says the program is on pause. The law also removed the requirement for CCI to be profitable. 

CCI is a for-profit prison work program run by the state’s Department of Corrections. Its programs offer incarcerated people pay and “technical advancement similar to that found in private employment,” according to the CCI website. Inmates eligible for CCI programs can work in a number of capacities including image processing (for toll roads), metal working, leather goods, metal manufacturing, K9 training and coffee roasting. Many of DOC’s agricultural programs have historically been run by CCI. 

At the time of CSU’s data collection in 2019 and 2020, every state prison in Colorado had some type of agriculture program. However, DOC and CCI have transitioned away from many of the agricultural programs “in an effort to continue seeking out and providing marketable job skills that translate to real-world local economies, while also allowing for financial sustainability within each individual program,” according to an emailed response from Annie Skinner, a spokesperson for Colorado DOC. 


Prisons ag programs in Colorado. CourtesyPrison Agriculture Lab

CCI’s agricultural programs faced scrutiny in 2015 when consumers protested at Whole Foods across the country in response to the grocer sourcing goat cheese and tilapia from CCI. The uproar led to a pledge from Whole Foods to stop sourcing foods produced by prison labor

CCI later ended its cow, goat and water buffalo dairy programs in 2021, 2019, 2022, respectively, but there’s still a hay-farming program at Four Mile Correctional Center in Cañon City. 

Skinner says the shift away from agricultural business was part of an effort to increase wages in prison and increase access to higher-paying jobs after incarceration. 

“The majority of incarcerated individuals releasing back into our communities are going back to urban areas where agricultural opportunities are not as prevalent,” Skinner writes. “Our goal is to provide training and opportunities that allow inmates the best chance of success upon release because we know having a job lowers the chances an individual will commit a new crime.”  

Skinner did not respond to questions about how the hay farm would better prepare inmates for their release than the agriculture programs that have ceased operations.  

According to Skinner, CCI’s daily average wage has increased from $5.58 per day to $10.98 per day over the course of the past year and a half.

‘Rehabilitative to what?’

Moore, who worked in the horsing training program, now owns his own business and works as a peer mentor at TRI in Longmont. He says there are some benefits to the horse program and prison work programs in general.

“I feel like it’s good for just building character for people who obviously haven’t been in a work environment in a while,” he says. “It’s getting them the opportunity to wake up, get dressed, get yourself together and actually go get ready to go to work — and I think that’s a good thing, definitely. Just being out at a facility and seeing the horses and getting to do something different than being in prison are also pluses.”

At the same time, Moore says, “they’re also a business. I don’t think [work programs are] just there to rehabilitate people. They’re there to keep people incarcerated to do the sentence.” 

Allen, the former New Mexican inmate, says fair wages and access to education are the key to reducing recidivism. 

“By devaluing our work, it reinforces the same behavior that put us there in the first place,” he says. “If people have a work ethic and they can know the value of their work, then they come out with some sort of stability — especially if you’re able to save up before you get out,” he says. 

While it might be tempting to think of some prison work programs as exploitive and others as rehabilitative, the CSU researchers want to rethink that binary. 

“Rehabilitative to what?” asks Carrie Chennault, co-director of the Prison Agriculture Lab. “[Agriculture is] a sector where employment labor has not received the same types of protections and benefits as other sectors in the economy,” she says, noting low pay and precarious working conditions. “Why is this the type of work that society deems people who are incarcerated deserve?”

Allen worked at a plant nursery after his release and can attest to this. 

“It was minimum wage. It was no benefits. It was a seasonal job, so you weren’t really getting 40 hours a week except for in the hot summer months when they really need you,” he says.

Chennault and Sbicca also note the way class and racial inequities play into the prison system and the work programs they offer — as well as how these programs reinforce those inequities. 

“When you think of who makes up prisons and jails — disproportionately people of color, disproportionately poor people — the underlying message there is that these people who are already marginalized, they’re fit for this kind of work, they deserve this kind of work,” Sbicca says. 

Accountable without a cage

Sbicca and Chenault say the lab is working to collect even more data and to expand education on prison agriculture. They also want to work to center the voices of people who are incarcerated and put the benefits of these programs — being outside, working with your hands and watching something grow —  into a larger context by asking new questions, like whether a prison is the right place for these types of programs or if other spaces should be created to take on those tasks. 

Sbicca says that incarceration is “ultimately untenable.” Addressing that fact, he says, is a more imaginative project.

The goal, he says, is “building alternative modes of safety and care that are non-punitive and show our communities can take care of each other and hold each other accountable without having to cage each other.” 

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