Was Whole Foods Right to Ditch Prison-Made Goat Cheese?

The grocery chain will stop selling products made by inmates.

A prisoner at Colorado Correctional Industries works with goats to produce milk for goat cheese. (Photo: Barry Staver/'Pacific Standard')

Sep 30, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

There aren’t many water buffalo in the United States. According to the American Water Buffalo Association, there were only 20,000 of the animals on U.S. farms in 2007, and while that number has likely grown, it is still a fraction of the number of cattle raised in America.

Although that makes it a niche market, it also means it’s a market that’s easy to corner. An unlikely group of farmers has done just that in Colorado, where one of the largest water buffalo ranches in the country can be found in Cañon City. The animals, along with dairy goats, fish ponds, beehives, game birds, and wild horses, are tended to by prisoners.

“If you have eaten buffalo mozzarella in this country, there is a very good chance you have eaten the product of inmate labor,” Graeme Wood wrote in Pacific Standard earlier this year. Much of the cheese is made from milk that originated at the Colorado Correctional Industries dairy. The facility, which is part of the state correctional department, also helps raise tilapia and produce goat milk that is used in cheese sold at national retailers such as Whole Foods—or at least was. On Wednesday, The Associated Press reported that the chain would stop carrying products made with prison labor.

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

Whole Foods was buying the products to “help people get back on their feet and eventually become contributing members of society,” Michael Silverman, a company spokesperson, told the AP. With the prisoners making less than minimum wage to help make goat cheese for the notoriously pricey grocer, it didn’t look that way to some consumers. But in a world that’s increasingly enamored with artisanal cheeses and sustainable fish, could CCI be proving meaningful job training for prisoners?

At CCI, the top end of the pay scale is $1.50 an hour—$125 a month—more than the zero dollars workers are paid at Texas and Georgia prisons. The Colorado program earns $63 million annually (although a recent audit found that it doesn’t break even), and the total output of U.S. prison labor is estimated to be about $2 billion.

None of this is illegal: The 13th Amendment allows involuntary servitude as criminal punishment, and efforts to improve working conditions and wages in the prison-industrial complex have been blocked by everyone from local wardens to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1977 that the North Carolina Prisoners’ Union could not continue organizing efforts behind bars. As recently as 2010, the Government Accountability Office criticized federal prisons for skirting OSHA inspections of a prison’s electronics-waste recycling facility that exposed prisoners to toxic dust, sickening numerous workers.

Despite prison labor’s constitutionality, critics say it can’t escape its roots in slavery, and while photos of tattooed inmates cuddling baby goats may tug at the Internet’s collective heartstrings, watching armed men on horseback overseeing inmates doubled over in harvest fields in Louisiana elicits a different kind of response.

Even in a post–Emancipation Proclamation world, prison labor allowed what many considered to be an alternative, state-sanctioned form of slavery to continue in penal institutions. After the Civil War, prisoners were rented out to plantations, allowing the slave-dependent business model to continue in an ersatz sort of way. In 1871, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in Ruffin v. Commonwealth that prisoners were “slaves of the state.”

Related: A Disturbing Trend in Agriculture: Prisoner-Picked Vegetables

In his dissent to the 1977 Supreme Court ruling, Justice Thurgood Marshall quoted the Virginia case and went on to write that “the Court, in apparent fear of a prison reform organization that has the temerity to call itself a ‘union,’ takes a giant step backward toward that discredit conception of prisoners’ rights”—that they are slaves of the state—“and the role of the courts.”

What’s changed in recent years is that instead of prison labor being focused on sustaining the prison and, to a certain degree, the federal government—raising food on prison farms, managing public lands, making low-cost goods on federal contracts for the military or other government branches—programs such as CCI ’s are bringing products made behind bars (but not labeled as such) to the general public.

With criminal justice reform, income inequality, and the minimum wage all bubbling up in the zeitgeist, it’s no wonder that consumers are less than thrilled with the idea of prisoner-made goat cheese. As Michael Allen, who organized a protest at a Texas Whole Foods over the weekend, told The Associated Press, “They say they care about the community, but they’re enhancing their profit off of poor people.” But the question of wages—or the lack thereof—isn’t the end of the conversation when it comes to CCI and other inmate labor programs.

“In most prisons you don’t get this kind of freedom,” James E. Scott, who works at CCI, told Pacific Standard. Scott was release in January after serving 23 years for murder. “It helps us hold on to our humanity,” he added.

Not only does tending to goats or water buffalo get prisoners out of their cells, but there’s something to be said for working in nature, according to Beth Waitkus, the director of the Insight Garden Program, which teaches prisoners in California gardening skills.

“I personally think that any time a person has a chance to get their hands in the dirt, that’s great,” she told TakePart. “The benefit of being connected to nature, no matter what the circumstances, I think is a plus.”

The 13-year-old program she runs, which started at San Quentin and will debut its first garden at Solano State Prison in the coming weeks, goes beyond job training. In addition to getting their hands in the dirt, men who volunteer for the Insight Garden Program study a classroom-based curriculum that Waitkus said is based on neuroscience research and geared toward “activating the whole brain.”

In the classroom, prisoners learn not only about permaculture gardening but also about environmental awareness, self-reflection, and personal change and success—both in prison and out—through the metaphor of the garden.

A 2011 study of 117 men who went through the program and were later paroled found that fewer than 10 percent returned to prison within three years. Nationally, the recidivism rate is 55 percent after five years.

CCI might not delve into metaphor and neuroscience, but the prison’s own reporting points toward successes beyond goat cheese sales: 80 percent of former prisoners who spent at least half a year in the program did not reoffend in their first year of release, which is far better than the 62 percent national average. After a year in the program, the rate jumps to 86 percent who do not reoffend within one year of release.

Both the Insight Garden Program and CCI have worked with prisoners who have gone on to find jobs thanks to their training, but critics of prison labor programs say that the niche nature of the work means finding employment in the real world is still difficult. Again, there aren’t many water buffalo farms out there.

Still, CCI has goals to expand. It employs 1,800 inmates, according to its 2014 report, and hopes to double in size over the next 10 years. While prisoners like Scott will continue to volunteer for the work, even for just a few dollars a day, the program’s existence depends on a workforce that everyone from Congress to the president to the Koch brothers is trying to reduce.

John Scaggs of Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy, which makes the goat cheese in question, still believe in the program. He told NPR that CCI is “model example” of prison labor. But the creamery is looking to buy milk from elsewhere, so it can continue to sell some of its cheese to Whole Foods.

Correction: This article originally stated that Haystack would no longer buy milk from the Colorado Correctional Industries. That was incorrect, and the story has been updated. TakePart regrets the error.