Whole Foods is being criticized for its use of cheap prison labor to produce some of its goods, reports VICE News. Whole Foods is a buyer of fish and cheese produced by Colorado prison inmates through a unique prison labor arrangement in the state that allows inmates to work for the profit of a private corporation. Other companies, including Hyvee and Murray’s Cheese, also sell products made by prison laborers, though recent attention has focused squarely on Whole Foods. Under the arrangement, Colorado Corrections Industries, part of the state corrections department that oversees labor and the sale of goods and services, enters into contracts with private businesses that want inmates to help with the labor of producing goods.
Quixotic Farming, a family-owned tilapia farming company with farms in Colorado and Missouri, pays Colorado to have inmates construct fish tanks and then raise tilapia for it. The department gets 85 cents a pound for the tilapia. Quixotic then sells to vendors. Tilapia was being sold for $11.99 a pound at Whole Foods on a recent day in New York. Inmates are paid as little as 74 cents to as high as $4 a day. The program has been hailed as a model for teaching inmates valuable work skills, and allowing them to earn a higher wage than other prison jobs like cooking or laundry duty. It has also been hailed for allowing the prison department to make back some of the money it spends on housing inmates. Colorado official Dennis Dunsmoor said the work program cuts the recidivism rate for its laborers in half compared to the state rate. Alex Friedmann of Prison Legal News and a prisoner rights’ advocate said, “It’s basically exploiting prisoner’s labor. It’s strictly exploitation from our perspective,”