A Prisoner Had a Hand in the Chèvre You Bought at Whole Foods

The prison workforce is doing underpaid labor in a variety of industries—from building canoes to working in agriculture.

(Photo: Richard Drury/Getty Images)

Jun 17, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The classified ads on the American Cheese Society website feature jobs for cheesemakers around the globe, from Australia to Wisconsin. Depending on the position, the various creameries pay from $12 an hour for an entry-level cheese production assistant upto $75,000 a year for a head cheesemaker. So what has the Colorado-based goat cheese company Haystack Mountain, which buys milk from a farm where employees start out at 60 cents per day, figured out that other cheesemakers haven’t? Haystack is able to keep up its supply of good, cheap goat milk by working with a farm staffed by prison inmates instead of employees hired off of the American Cheese Society classifieds.

You wouldn’t know about Haystack’s connection to the prison-industrial complex by looking at its website—there are no Department of Corrections numbers listed on the “Our People” section, where you can learn about cheesemaker Jackie Chang and staffers at the 25-year-old company. But a recent story in Fortune magazine is the latest to highlight the business it does with Colorado Correction Industries. In addition to prison-run goat farms, the state agency uses an incarcerated workforce to provide an array of agricultural and manufacturing services on the cheap. “CCI, a self-funded state agency, is leading the charge with a burgeoning $65 million business that employs 2,000 convicts at 17 facilities,” Jennifer Alsever writes for Fortune. “The idea: Offer small businesses a flexible workforce and give prisoners the chance to stockpile earnings and skills needed for life outside prison bars.”

Yet it's something about the goats—not the wild horse management services or redwood canoe manufacturing—that draws people. It’s the images of inmates milking goats for chèvre sold at Whole Foods that allows for headlines like Forturne’s, “Prisoner labor’s new frontier: Artisanal Foods.”

This isn’t the first time that a story about CCI’s dairy has garnered a considerable number of clicks on the Internet—photos of burly, tattooed prisoners bottle-feeding baby goats have no expiration date. But there’s more to the story than some cute quirkiness.

In a 2012 story about Haystack from the cheese magazine Culturetagline: “the word on cheese”—authors Laurel Miller and Barry Staver write, “Statistics show that agricultural/animal husbandry programs in particular have a deeply rehabilitative impact on inmates, resulting in much lower recidivism rates.” Where these mythical statistics come from, however, is left unsaid.

While milking goats may be far more romantic than digging potatoes or picking fruit, it’s still agricultural labor—the kind of jobs that have often been performed by undocumented workers. As Rebecca McCray wrote in a TakePart story back in April, the anti-immigration climate of the past couple of years is leading to more and more prisoners working on American farms—and earning a pittance. And the problems with hiring out prisoners don’t end there.

When the Georgia Department of Corrections sent prisoners to harvest Vidalia onions in 2012 following the introduction of the state’s anti-immigration law, Edward O. Dubose, the president of the NAACP Georgia State Conference, called the practice “shocking and regressive.” The racial composition of today’s massive prison population reflects laws and policies, such as those ushered in by the war on drugs, that have disproportionately affected minorities. These laws particularly affect people of color. Black males have a one-in-three chance of being imprisoned in their lifetime, while black women are incarcerated in prison at a rate 2.5 times higher than the rate for white women. It’s not hard to deduce the predominant race of prisoners who may now be seen working in fields and orchards around the country.

John Scaggs, Haystack’s marketing and sales director, looks at his company’s relationship with CCI in far narrower terms. “They have land. They have human capital, the equipment. If you can think it up, they can do it, and do it fast,” he tells Fortune.

But at $75 for the “Foothills Collection”—nearly two pounds of the various types of cheese Haystack makes, including a few made from goat’s milk—the company’s savings from contracting with the prison-run farm aren’t being passed along to consumers.