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Why Whole Foods’ Discontinuation of Prison Labor Made Products is Misguided

Why Whole Foods’ Discontinuation of Prison Labor Made Products is Misguided

“Work training is a key component of rehabilitation in state prisons”

Facing pressure from activists, Grocer Whole Foods recently announced that by April of 2016 they’ll no longer been selling products made from prison labor.

Not only is the Texan grocer’s move disappointing, it’s also misguided.

According to NPR, the groups targeting Whole Foods decried prison labor as “slave labor” and “exploitation.”

The move comes on the heels of a demonstration in Houston where the company was chastised for employing inmates through prison-work programs.

Michael Allen, founder of End Mass Incarceration Houston, organized the protest. He says Whole Foods was engaging in exploitation since inmates are typically paid very low wages.

“People are incarcerated and then forced to work for pennies on the dollar — compare that to what the products are sold for,” Allen tells The Salt.

Currently, Whole Foods sells a goat cheese produced by Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy in Longmont, Colo., and a tilapia from Quixotic Farming, which bills itself as a family-owned sustainable seafood company.

These companies partner with Colorado Correctional Industries, a division of the Colorado Department of Corrections, to employ prisoners to milk goats and raise the fish.”

Exploiting inmates?

What about providing them with trade skills, social skills, or teaching work ethic and purpose? That’s exactly what Colorado Correctional Industries does. “Every participant is not only encouraged, but expected to contribute ideas, effort and commitment,” says CCI.

These companies partner with Colorado Correctional Industries, a division of the Colorado Department of Corrections, to employ prisoners to milk goats and raise the fish.

CCI’s mission is to provide inmates with employment and training. The intent is to give them skills that could help them find employment once they’re released. CCI employs about 1,600 inmates, according to a report by the Colorado state auditor.

In an email, Whole Food’s spokesperson Michael Silverman tells The Salt that the company liked the idea of employing inmates. “We felt that supporting supplier partners who found a way to be part of paid, rehabilitative work being done by inmates would help people get back on their feet,” he writes.

“Our program is so effective that we’ve helped reduce repeat offenders by nearly 20 percent when compared to non-matched general population inmates. It’s a number we continue to improve upon, but clearly providing meaningful work and self-improvement opportunities in a safe, humane and appropriately secure environment, has been highly beneficial in assisting inmates with community reintegration,” claims CCI.

Collecting no tax dollars, CCI also claims it reduces the cost of incarceration by $5,000 for each enrolled inmate.

CCI is not a compulsory program, a fact that renders the “forced slave labor” argument untrue. “CCI, in collaboration with the CDOC, matches eligible inmates with an appropriate position within one of our manufacturing, agricultural or service industries,” says CCI. Inmates consider it a privilege to work in a CCI shop, according to a state audit report that explained eligibility requirements:

In order to work for CCI, inmates must have graduated from high school or obtained a GED. All inmates, regardless of security classification, are eligible for CCI jobs unless they are in administrative segregation, have health issues preventing work, or are housed at facilities that do not operate CCI shops, which include Colorado State Penitentiary, Centennial Correctional Facility, San Carlos Correctional Facility, Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, and the state’s four privately managed facilities. CCI cannot force inmates to work; however, CCI management indicates that inmates consider working for CCI to be a privilege and CCI is able to staff its shops with inmates who have requested work. During Fiscal Year 2013, CCI estimated that about 11,800 inmates met the conditions for a work assignment.

FreedomWorks’ Director of Justice Reform, Jason Pye, reinforces the necessity of rehabilitative programs:

“Work training is a key component of rehabilitation in state prisons. Yes, prisoners eligible for these programs may not receive market or otherwise government-mandated minimum wages, but the skills they learn could make their transition back to the society much easier and actually enhance public safety. The groundbreaking reforms in Texas, for example, emphasized education and work training as the key to reducing recidivism, which has translated into the lowest crime rates since 1968 and $3 billion in savings.

A January 2015 report noted that participants in Colorado Correctional Industries “were more likely to find jobs upon release and had lower recidivism rates than other inmates who were released.” I think it’s a shortsighted move on the part of Whole Foods.”

Derek Cohen, Deputy Director of Right on Crime and the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation said:

“Whole Foods is well within their right as a private enterprise to source – or not – their products from any supplier they see fit. However, the larger point is that work programs, like the one used here, are voluntary and generally effective and improving outcomes for those reentering society at large. Unfortunately, the alternative that has been pushed by left-wing activists here is often fewer or even no such work programs, not better pay.”

Testimonials aplenty and a Colorado state audit that verified CCIs claims should provide a socially conscious company like Whole Foods the fortitude required to stand athwart ill-advised protestors. The wages might be meager (though inmates are not directly paying for room and board, food, etc.), but the skills enrollees receive are invaluable to their post-incarceration success.

Bad move, Whole Foods. Bad move.

[Featured Image courtesy of Whole Foods Market®]

Follow Kemberlee on Twitter @kemberleekaye

This article has been updated to correct the date of the program’s discontinuation.


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Amazing! Inmates normally will fight (not literally) for anything that they can DO, as opposed to sitting around. Boredom and inactivity are usually two of the worst aspects of prison life.

One thing I didn’t see explicitly dealt with was whether this program was voluntary, and IF it was, what the waiting list was to get into it.

THAT would have been useful information.

    Kemberlee Kaye in reply to Ragspierre. | October 1, 2015 at 5:00 pm


    Bruce Hayden in reply to Ragspierre. | October 3, 2015 at 3:30 am

    Agree here. My second hand experience with prisons is that any jobs are prised, even those paying $.10 an hour working in the prison kitchen. Esp prised are the outside or collaborative jobs like this that provide some training and a bit more money. And remember that every thing the inmates really need is supplied (e.g. housing, food, medical). This extra money goes to extras, such as junk food, tobacco, coffee, TV, sunglasses, etc, which is why even the $.10 an hour prison jobs are in such high demand.

    As a CO taxpayer, I am very happy to see programs like this, and am likely to boycott Whole Foods as a result of this.

In any case, what’s wrong with exploiting prisoners, or using them as slaves? The thirteenth amendment explicitly permits slavery “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”, so what’s the problem? Even if a state were to make a profit on prison labor — which no state does — so what?

    DaveGinOly in reply to Milhouse. | October 2, 2015 at 12:59 am

    Spot-on, Milhouse. The protesters don’t seem to understand that convicts are people who have lost their liberties and immunities. Slavery, and every other form of punishment short of torture, can be an appropriate punishment for certain crimes. These are not innocent, law-abiding people in full possession of their rights, they are criminals who have been lawfully deprived of certain rights as punishment for crimes.

They don’t want to end prison labor , they just want to eliminate prisons . Maybe just put them all on timeout in the corner or something. I agree that in nonviolent crimes( in reality nonviolent ,not plead downs) ,we should do more active restraints ankle bracelets ect , work programs, restitution programs where they work to pay victims , that would better serve some prisoners but for truly violent crimes, the slammer .

Idiotic Leftist logic — restrict prisoners to learning the valuable life and career skills of carving shivs from toothbrush handles and cooking illicit narcotics in their cells…but, if they work at a respectable trade and learn useful life skills, that’s “exploitation.” I mean, prisoners are in prison; it’s not intended to be a period of unfettered economic opportunity!

I suggest a study with Hillary Clinton , a 5 to 10 year experiment, where she first hand sees the life of one of the “exploited ” masses in a federal pen

I used to work with prisoners as a volunteer in younger days. Those without families on the outside depended on whatever prison jobs for a little spending money, but most were anxious to work because it makes time go by quicker.

Ending programs like this, which appears to be the goal of the leftist do-gooders, actually hurts the chances of a prisoner being able to socialize upon release.

Speaking of NPR, that piece of garbage Boehner had the opportunity to de-fund that goverment-sponsored democrat propaganda machine.

Well, at least we de-funded Boehner.

Houston needs a founder for End Mass Imbecility Houston.

Questioning inmates who “work for pennies on the dollar” is actually saying “materialism is man’s highest aspiration.”

Prisoners can work without the goods being sold outside. The Texas system has its own textile production to make prison uniforms. Others grow food to feed the inmates. Work has value. Just don’t provide slave labor produced goods to the marketplace.

    Just don’t provide slave labor produced goods to the marketplace.

    If you know of an organization which is actually trying to market goods produced by slave labor, you should probably let someone know.

      Barry in reply to Amy in FL. | October 2, 2015 at 10:22 am

      Any company selling products produced in a prison at less than prevailing wages would qualify.

        Ragspierre in reply to Barry. | October 2, 2015 at 10:53 am

        That’s just simply nuts.

          My opinion. Prisoners can work all kinds of jobs paying for the prison requirements. Uniforms, food, transportation, building maintenance, etc.

          I do not like to see the state competing with private enterprise. It’s unfair competition. If xyz company can sale prison made products cheaper than abc company selling the same product made by free market rate labor, at a lower price, explain how that is not unfair please? how do you justify the use of labor that is held captive to do this?

          I think it is nuts to suggest otherwise.

          Ragspierre in reply to Ragspierre. | October 2, 2015 at 12:38 pm

          Now you’re changing your argument to “unfair”.

          But it’s still BS. The companies selling these products into the market are private. You have no evidence whatsoever that their costs are not in line with market rates.

          As made VERY plain in the piece, inmates are voluntarily entering this program, which, BTW, continues without Whole Foods.

          You cannot defend the notion of “slavery = below ‘prevailing wage'”. That’s nuts.

          Barry in reply to Ragspierre. | October 2, 2015 at 1:01 pm

          I’m not changing the subject. Just because I don’t list every single objection to prison labor in the first comment made…

          You’re OK with it. I’m not. Saying the companies selling the products in the market doesn’t change the fact that the producer is the state.

          Actually there is evidence the market price is lower when prison labor is used. if I can find it I’ll post it up. I believe Washington state or Oregon had prison made jeans being sold at one time for below market cost. Don’t know that I can find that.

          They are captive. That is not in question. That they have the option of working or not doesn’t change that fact.

          Barry in reply to Ragspierre. | October 2, 2015 at 1:15 pm

          Found the denim deal. Oregon, “Prison Blues”, price is higher now after a successful marketing campaign.

          Oregon requires inmates work. Now, they are held captive and required to work. Explain the difference in that and slave labor.

          Ragspierre in reply to Ragspierre. | October 2, 2015 at 1:18 pm

          A felony conviction.

          Barry in reply to Ragspierre. | October 2, 2015 at 1:46 pm

          No, doesn’t do it.

          There is now an incentive for the state to create felony convictions.


          Ragspierre in reply to Ragspierre. | October 2, 2015 at 2:14 pm


          We’re just like China. Silly.

          Barry in reply to Ragspierre. | October 2, 2015 at 5:41 pm

          “Nuts” Handwaving

          I didn’t say we are just like China.

          We are moving in that direction however, and you know it.

          If you put someone in jail, and force them to produce products for sale, it’s slavery. You know it is. You can say you’re OK with it since they committed a felony, but it is still slavery.

          I prefer to allow them to work or starve. Want to eat, participate in the growing of the prison food, etc. That can include a lot of different types of work, just do not sale the result to private business for resale to the public.

Whole foods are idiots. Inmates want to work. And for prisoners in most states deprivation of liberty is the only legal punishment. The rest is simply to secure the facility and the people inside.

At one prison I worked there were inmates that made more per day than the officers. They were paid from the moment they left their facility in the am until they returned and just a few dollars an hour less than the officer so it worked out to more per day. They were doing asbestos abatement.

That is how most people learn to do it. Through prison programs. Those are highly sought after jobs and I would not be surprised if prisoners actually did fight over them.

There are plenty of jobs that prisoners can do, plenty of programs where they can learn job skills and liberals always try to mess them up.

    Bruce Hayden in reply to forksdad. | October 3, 2015 at 3:39 am

    They may make more, but I expect that the inmates involved don’t see that much of it until their release. The problem is that even $10 a day is hard to spend on their selves, which means that anything more ends up subsidizing the black market.

By this logic, one of the programs I’ve worked with which funnels rescue dogs from high-kill shelters to prisons where inmates help train and rehabilitate them to official AKC Canine Good Citizen status, needs to be disbanded as well.

Who wants to tell some of the Wounded Warriors who are now using canine graduates of this program as PTSD service dogs that they have to give them back?

    Ragspierre in reply to Amy in FL. | October 2, 2015 at 9:24 am

    What this is about is a lame Collectivist outfit nobody has ever heard of getting some stroke out of something…anything…that’s connected to “prison”.

    I hope one of the inmates from Colorado comes to Houston when they’re released, to have some interpersonal time with these Collectivist pukes.

buckeyeminuteman | October 2, 2015 at 1:14 pm

Hipsters and fashionistas who only buy their groceries at Whole Foods are misguided.

Idle hands are the devil’s workshop…..

FWIW I can’t stand Whole Foods… their customers are mostly pretentious jackasses…

    Ragspierre in reply to Roux. | October 2, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    I agree. But I’m delighted that Whole Foods exists, because it’s a manifestation of a free market. Boobs deserve a place to be fleeced!