Food: Fresh From The Jail Cell?

Gabrielle Oliver in 500 Words On on Sep 20, 2015

When taking a sip from your morning coffee, do you ever stop to ponder the idea that perhaps your mocha latte is only as cheap as it is because of a new innovation of slavery? Of course not! This is because “insourcing,” or prison labor, is rarely addressed and is hardly seen as an issue.

After slavery, “chain gangs” were created and used to receive free labor from Black individuals for little to no cost at all. Oftentimes, African-Americans were arrested for small crimes, or no crime at all, and were sentenced to life in jail. As far as prison labor goes, unfortunately, the average prison in today’s society is hardly any different. Inmates are forced to work long hours for mere cents a day (or likely nothing at all because of fines and/or victim compensation). All the while, people of color make up about 60 percent of incarcerated individuals while only making up about 30 percent of the American population; so the great number of Black people in jail is just another fact that hasn’t changed since the Emancipation Proclamation. Starting to sound a lot like slavery, isn’t it?

One might argue that prisoners are still getting paid, and that payment is a luxury after having committed a crime, regardless of the conditions, but are they really? Inmates’ low wages mixed with commissary costs often result in them accumulating a greater debt than they had upon their arrival to any given correctional facility. And, while prisoners’ debt is growing, businesses receive millions of dollars in tax credits for employing them.

Here are just a few of the many big businesses that use prison labor:

1. Whole Foods. Yes, I’m sure you assumed that the food had to be 100 percent fresh because of the crazy prices, but the reality is that Whole Foods purchases artisan cheese and tilapia from private companies employing prisoners who earn a mere 74 cents a day (while tilapia is sold for a whopping $11.99).

2. McDonald’s. Not so surprised by this one, are you? Surprisingly, this fact isn’t about the lack of freshness of the food! You’ve heard about the low wages for those who work at McDonald’s, but crazy enough, the inmates who sew the uniforms make a lot less.

3. Starbucks. Gasp. Not your beloved coffee! Signature Packing Solutions, Starbucks’ subcontractor, annually hires prisoners from correctional facilities in Washington to package holiday coffee.

Other household-name businesses that use penal labor include Wal-Mart, Macy’s, JCPenney, and Microsoft.

Though “insourcing” may appear to be the work of privately owned facilities, this is more so facilitated by UNICOR — the corporation created and used by the federal government to control prison labor.

So, how do we avoid funding these businesses that use penal/slave labor and overprice their items? A new app, Buycott, makes shopping very easy! With a quick search of the product you intend to buy, you can discover information about the manufacturer, how the product was made and/or prepared, and even the campaigns for or against it. For more information, visit

Originally published at on September 20, 2015.