How Dairy Milked by Prisoners Ends Up on Whole Foods Shelves

In Colorado, inmates are working as farmhands, providing the milk that becomes high-end goat cheese, on sale at stores across the country.
David Shankbone/Flickr

For many shoppers, the fancy cheese section at Whole Foods evokes images of sweet little farms on hillsides, perhaps run by a family who has been in the same spot for generations. It does not, in all likelihood, make shoppers think about prison.

But a new piece in Fortune reports that Colorado Correctional Industries (CCi) is providing the labor for a host of products that goes beyond stereotypical prisoner products (license plates and office furniture) and includes the goat milk used by Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy, carried by Whole Foods. According to Jennifer Alsever, six inmates at the Skyline Correctional Center in Canon City milk 1,000 goats twice a day. They are paid a base rate of 60 cents per day but "most prisoners earn $300 to $400 a month with incentives." The dairy is then transported to another facility, where non-inmate employees turn it into cheese.

Colorado Correctional Industries is a division of the state's Department of Corrections that provides inmate labor for manufacturing, agriculture, and a variety of services. According to Alsever, CCi employs 2,000 inmates at 17 different facilities across the state. "Nationwide, she writes, "63,032 inmates produce more than $2 billion worth of products a year, most of them sold to government entities."

CCi, for its part, views inmate employment as rehabilitative. Its goal, it explains on its website, is "to reduce inmate idleness and the demand for general-funded programs by working as many inmates as possible in self supporting and productive industries. To train inmates in meaningful skills, work ethics and quality standards which best enable them to secure long-term employment after release from prison." Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy concurs: "Statistics show that agricultural/animal husbandry programs have a profoundly rehabilitative impact on inmates, resulting in reduced recidivism rates."

There is little question that post-release employment is tied closely with reduced recidivism (one study found that post-release employment "the most important predictor" of successful re-entry into non-prison life). But the reason for this is not well understood. Are people who manage to find work after prison already more stable? Better connected to friends and family? Healthier? Or does having a job exert some sort of stabilizing effect?

But even if you accept that jobs can somehow facilitate re-entry, can prison work programs facilitate jobs? That's also hard to pin down. One 1988 study found that "the effect of prison industry participation on the probability of postrelease felony arrest was small and insignificant" but a later study (1997) contradicted that, finding "significant and substantive" effects. The conflicting results may be because the details of the programming—quality, rigor, types of skills taught—matter greatly, and different programs will produce different results. 

Even when these programs are beneficial, the 60-cents-a-day wage is disturbing—and not just because plenty of people outside of prison would be happy to milk goats at a normal wage. The justification for such low wages seems to be that the compensation is not financial but "training" in skills such as a "work ethic," as the CCi website says. But all jobs are compensated with "training," at least when this loosely defined; that's part of having a job. It's hard to imagine that the benefit of such training wouldn't be bolstered by a little cash in a bank account, ready to be spent on rent, groceries, transit, and so on when someone leaves prison behind. That's not going to be possible on just 60 cents for a day's work.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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