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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