#UnlearningWithCoFED — Prison Labor

In this #UnlearningWithCoFED post, we’ll be exploring the relationship between co-ops, food, labor, and prison.

As a reminder, here’s how we define unlearning: a continuous process of questioning what and how we’ve been taught so that we can learn other ways of knowing, doing, and being that serve our collective liberation and help us dismantle all forms of oppression. Through our #UnlearningWithCoFED emails, we’ll be questioning and learning together how co-ops fit into the larger visions of food, racial, economic, gender and climate justice.

A while ago, California’s forests were on fire — in the middle of winter. What caught headlines, though, was that incarcerated people were out there fighting fires for $1 an hour.

For many folks, this might’ve been the first time they’ve read anything about prison labor — a billion dollar industry in the U.S. [1] But for at least 25% of the world’s prison population (although the U.S. makes up 5% of the global population, we have 25% of the world’s prison population), labor is required… which means it’s forced and a ubiquitous part of the U.S. and global economy. What is rightly referred to as prison slavery is also technically legal and a daily reality for incarcerated people.

Though the 13th Amendment declared slavery unconstitutional, it left exception for involuntary servitude in the case of “punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Mass incarceration is, in fact, an extension of slavery… and it extends everywhere, especially to food, and overwhelmingly impacts poor and working-class Black people and communities of color.

  • While people of color make up about 30% of the U.S. population, they account for 60% of incarcerated workers. [2]
  • According to the Center of American Progress, African American women are three times more likely than their white counterparts to be incarcerated, and Hispanic women are 69% more likely to be incarcerated.
  • People of color receive longer sentences for the same crimes; the U.S. Sentencing Commission reported that Black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer once convicted. [3]
  • Harsher punishments for students of color lead to more African American and Hispanic youth in prison; African Americans make up two-thirds of incarcerated youth, and Hispanics make up one third. [5]
  • As of 2015, 44% of youth held in detention centers are African American.
  • Incarceration rates for Asian Americans are on the rise, too, but according to racial justice advocates, the racist “model minority myth,” otherization, and other factors create incomplete and inaccurate data reporting on this issue. [5]
  • Native Americans are incarcerated at a rate 38% higher rate than the national average. [6]

Farms and major food corporations use, and directly profit from, prison labor. For example, under the Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) program, Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Starbucks, ConAgra, and Pepsi are among the corporations that use incarcerated people through contracts with local correctional authorities for low-cost labor. [7] In 2012, the Georgia Department of Corrections used prison labor to harvest Vidalia onions [8], and states like Arizona and Idaho use prison labor in the agriculture industry. To be clear, this isn’t “job training” and in no way are incarcerated people getting a leg up on working while in prison… not only are they paid as low as 16 cents an hour, but their experience working while incarcerated is rarely considered legitimate job experience by prospective employers. To put 16 cents into perspective, rates for in-state phone calls in prison have historically reached up to $10–15 a minute. [9] Commissary prices for grocery items like beans or chicken breast can cost incarcerated people up to 280% more than they would at a local grocery store, as reported in the Native Sun on South Dakota Prisons. [10]

These conditions are often resisted by incarcerated people, having culminated in countless peaceful prison strikes over the years. Just last month, Florida prisoners participated in a coordinated, peaceful, general strike, the third mass action over the course of a year in protest of forced, unpaid labor and inhumane conditions in the state’s detention facilities. As reported in The Intercept in early January, “Detainees in at least eight prisons declared their intention to stop all work on Monday — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — to demand an end to unpaid labor and price gouging in prison commissaries, as well as the restoration of parole, among other requests.” In September of 2016, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) organized [11] the largest American prison strike since the Attica uprising of 1971. [12]

To join us in this #UnlearningWithCoFED exercise, we suggest…

Reading the articles below:

Watching the documentary, The 13th, with your co-op staff, community, or by yourself!

Netflix allows ‘educational screenings’ of this documentary, so you’re cleared to do outreach for your screening but will need a Netflix login.

As you’re reading/watching, here some questions to consider:

  • What does economic power and autonomy have to do with who are disproportionately targeted by police and the state?
  • How many people are incarcerated in your state? How does their forced labor touch your food, co-op, and other aspects of your life?
  • How could co-ops act in solidarity with incarcerated people protesting unjust conditions?

If your community or co-op is working on a boycott or divestment campaign against food suppliers that work hand-in-hand with the prison industrial complex or working on a direct action against the Prison Industrial Complex, we invite you to share your resources with us by responding directly to this email! If you’re interested in organizing for the abolition of modern day slavery and negotiation for better conditions, consider joining a local chapter of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. By directly working with incarcerated people for direct action against the Prison Industrial Complex, we can directly transform injustices in our food system.


1. https://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21718897-idaho-prisoners-roast-potatoes-kentucky-they-sell-cattle-prison-labour
2, 3. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2012/03/13/11351/the-top-10-most-startling-facts-about-people-of-color-and-criminal-justice-in-the-united-states/ 
4. https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/black-disparities-youth-incarceration/
5. https://asamnews.com/2016/04/11/incarceration-rates-asian-americans-pacific-islanders-on-rise/
6. https://qz.com/392342/native-americans-are-the-unseen-victims-of-a-broken-us-justice-system/
7. http://maltajusticeinitiative.org/12-major-corporations-benefiting-from-the-prison-industrial-complex-2/
8. http://www.takepart.com/article/2014/04/14/prison-ag-labor/ 
9. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/13/technology/fcc-prison-phone-calls-regulations.html
10. http://www.nativesunnews.today/news/2017-03 29/Letters_to_the_Editor/The_price_of_prison_commissary_items_prices_keep_r.html
11. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/a-national-strike-against-prison-slavery 
12. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/22/inside-us-prison-strike-labor-protest

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