A sweeping two-year investigation by the Associated Press has tied some of the biggest food companies to labor performed by prisoners throughout the U.S. penal system—a practice that many of these same companies have policies against. It’s also a practice for which the U.S. has banned shipments of cotton from China for doing the same, according to a report published on CNBC.
In one case, prison-raised cattle from the Louisiana State Penitentiary—where men are sentenced to hard labor and paid pennies, if anything—find their way into the supply chains of giants like McDonald’s, Walmart, and Cargill. In other cases, goods that prisoners produce end up in a wide range of name brand products, from Frosted Flakes cereal and Ball Park hot dogs to Gold Medal flour, Coca-Cola, and Riceland rice, the AP reports.
Though proponents of the labor argue that the prisoners are learning important skills while repaying their debt to society, those prisoners are among the most vulnerable laborers. If they refuse to work, the AP notes, they might be jeopardizing their chances at parole or face other punishments. They also are often excluded from common protections, even when seriously injured or killed on the job.
“They are largely uncompensated, they are being forced to work, and it’s unsafe. They also aren’t learning skills that will help them when they are released,” law professor Andrea Armstrong, an expert on prison labor at Loyola University New Orleans, told the AP. “It raises the question of why we are still forcing people to work in the fields.”
The labor hearkens back to the U.S.’s history with slave labor—some prisoners working the same plantation soil where slaves harvested cotton, tobacco, and sugarcane more than 150 years ago. The Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, for example, was an antebellum plantation once owned by one of the largest slave traders in the U.S. Today, about 3,800 male prisoners, 65% of them Black, work in the fields, initially for free, but can ultimately earn 2 to 40 cents an hour.
Prisoners do some of the country’s dirtiest and most dangerous jobs. AP reporters found people who were hurt or maimed on the job, as well as women who were sexually harassed or abused. There is very little protection for any of it. In one case, a prisoner was cleaning a machine near the chicken kill line at Koch Foods in Ashland, Ala., when its whirling teeth caught his arm and sucked him inside, crushing his skull and killing him instantly.
Koch Foods initially argued that the prisoner wasn’t technically an employee, but the case was ultimately settled. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Koch $19,500, saying workers had not been given proper training and that its machines had inadequate safety guards.
“They may be doing the exact same work as people who are not incarcerated, but they don’t have the training, they don’t have the experience, they don’t have the protective equipment,” Jennifer Turner, lead author of a 2022 American Civil Liberties Union report on prison labor, told the AP.