Pacific Standard — From Our Prison to Your Dinner Table — Family farmers can’t compete with this model of business…

From Our Prison to Your Dinner Table

At America’s strangest workplace, laborers are making toys for kids, picking grapes for wineries, and farming tilapia for Whole Foodsall for $1.50 an hour.

Graeme Wood

Mar 3, 2015

One of my daughters favorite stuffed animals is a chocolate-colored, beady-eyed buffalo that was stitchedlovingly, I like to thinkby the hands of a convicted felon. The buffalo was born in Canon City, Colorado, on the grounds of a large rural complex of six state prisons with a total of 4,000 inmates. Some of those inmates manufacture cute toys. Others tend real buffalo on feedlots and dairies outside in the mountain air. The goal, said Steve Smith, the prison-labor programs mustachioed director until his retirement in December, is to convert the prisoners through labor into productive citizens. This is a therapeutic community, he said. Were trying to make them into taxpayers instead of tax burdens. He channeled the Book of Isaiah, or possibly Ozzy Osbourne: No rest for the wicked.

The most familiar prison work programs involve stamping license plates or breaking rocks as part of a chain gang. As head of Colorado Correctional Industries, or CCI, Smith was responsible for thinking bigger and more creatively. And during a morning drive around the campus of his prison, it was clear he has succeeded wildly by building one of the strangest labor colonies in the modern world. None of its workers can leave without being chased down by men with shotguns. They toil in dozens of industries, ranging from fiberglass construction to floristry to the husbandry of Hungarian partridges, and a large portion of their products are niche, even artisanal.

By keeping the products unlabeled and unnoticed, prison labor systems all over the country have skirted uproar over whether prison labor is fair and just. MORE