Is Prison Labor the Future of Our Food System?

Sarah Evans | 09.07.2018

Prisoners are being used to fill the growing shortage of farmworkers —shortages that in large part are caused by the US immigration enforcement system.

Anti-immigration legislation in many states has led to a crackdown on undocumented farmworkers, resulting in a shortage of agricultural labor.[1] The Trump administration has only exacerbated the problem with its “zero tolerance” immigration policy that has split immigrant families and incarcerated children. While the temporary migrant worker program H-2A is being used to make up for worker shortages, it lacks the capacity to address the full labor demand and perpetuates a vulnerable, captive workforce with few legal rights.

The shrinking supply of migrant labor has caught the attention of lawmakers.  Some politicians and private companies are using prisoners to harvest the food we eat, from onions in Georgia and Arizona’s watermelons, to Idaho’s potatoes and apples in Washington. In Idaho, a state lawmaker plans to sponsor a bill in the 2018 legislative session that would expand a program allowing agricultural businesses to use state inmate labor if they can’t hire enough workers. Six businesses in Idaho use a program that already exists in several other states.

Currently, there are over 30,000 incarcerated men and women working in the food system. Many of them make less than a dollar a day. This fact is reflected in one of the 10 demands put forth by the inmates in the August 21st national prison strike: end prison slavery.

Prison labor is broadly used to employ inmates at extremely low wages, often benefiting private companies, manufacturers, and state agencies. Furniture, textiles and road signs are produced by inmates at both low and maximum security prisons. Prison farms and incarcerated people working as farmworkers also play a significant role in the production of food, both for prisons themselves and for private farmers selling their harvest into the food chain. The importance of prison labor was unabashedly demonstrated when lawyers in the California District Attorney’s Office argued against early parole because the Department of Corrections wanted to keep its labor force.

Despite assertions of prison labor’s rehabilitative qualities, it is certain that paltry wages and lack of rights are its most attractive features to businesses and state agencies. It is also in line with the restrictive labor rights of the H2-A migrant labor program that codifies labor exploitation for immigrant farmworkers. As agricultural prison labor increases, it will likely lower wages overall—especially for farmworkers. Organizing unions among prisoners would be as onerous as it is for undocumented workers and H2-A workers. The use of prison labor (and H2-A workers) serves as a reminder that the agricultural industry depends on marginalized populations, stripped of their rights to pick and process our food.

The color of labor—the color of food

In the United States penal system more than 60% of the inmates are people of color. Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, and Hispanic men are 2.7 times as likely. These numbers reflect the disparity and inequity that characterizes mass incarceration. Using prisoners as farmworkers may mean only doubling down on a political system which deals with social issues of systematic inequality and racism via highly racialized incarceration.

Stay in the loop with Food First!

Get our independent analysis, research, and other publications you care about to your inbox for free!

Sign up today!

What’s clear is that farm labor is delegated to groups that have been historically exploited. While not all farmworkers are immigrants or people of color, the overwhelming majority are. The capitalist agriculture system depends on socially and politically marginalized groups with little power. Looking historically at farm laborers we can see the progression from slave labor on plantations to the abolition of slavery and the adoption of the convict lease system, which legitimized unfree and forced labor through criminalization (many prisoners were former slaves). As the twentieth century progressed, waves of different migrant groups supplied cheap pools of labor, while today, undocumented laborers have become the backbone of the American food system. The undocumented farmworkers who migrate here already possess extensive knowledge and skills in agriculture and are not easily replaced. Nonetheless, lawmakers are looking for any new pool of cheap, flexible labor to substitute for the very problems they have created.

Why have slaves, immigrants and inmates been determined as those most desirable for farm work? It is no coincidence that immigrants and people of color compose the backbone of the United States’ agriculture industry. Our capitalist food system depends on cheap food. Cheap food under this model is produced through exploitation of cheap labor from vulnerable and marginalized communities. Undocumented immigrant workers and inmates possess little to no political rights, making organizing or other forms of resistance both financially and physically dangerous.

The solution to labor shortages: fair wages and worker protections

Exploiting the incarcerated to address farmworker shortages only continues the historic trend of selecting politically and socially vulnerable groups as the laborers of the food system. Pursuing alternatives that remain embedded in severe forms of racial and class injustice are not solutions, and fail to give sufficient dignity to the hands that feed us. Fair wages, worker protections, and dignity is the answer to labor shortages, and should be the bedrock of a just food system. If our food depends upon exploiting vulnerable populations, then we need to question the very basis of our economic system.

The cover image for this article was taken by Bear Truck Hot (CC BY-ND 2.0).


1. It is estimated that roughly 70% of those employed by the agriculture industry are undocumented.