The Associated Press reported that inmates across the country are engaged in agricultural work that’s feeding into popular national retailers and making its way to supermarket shelves at stores like Whole Foods.
At the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a former plantation, a reporter observed inmates raising cattle which was later bought by a Texas slaughterhouse and sent to the food giants.
The outlet said it found hundreds of millions of dollars tied to goods sold on the open market from prison labour, including Frosted Flakes cereal, Coca-Cola and Riceland rice.
Other prison products were discovered in supermarkets such as Kroger, Target and Aldi. Some of the goods had even been exported to countries that the US has blocked products from because of forced labour.
Prison work is enshrined in the Thirteenth Amendment of the US Constitution, which abolished slavery except for times of criminal punishment.
At the Louisiana prison, inmates made pennies an hour or nothing at all. If the prisoners refuse to work, they risk jeopardising their chances of parole or could face punishments like solitary confinement. Sixty-four per cent of Louisiana’s incarcerated population is Black.
About $200m from prison work has been tied to goods sold within the past six years. Some of the largest sums came from the leasing out of prisoners to corporations. In one case, the outlet found that some inmates had been transported for work at a Tyson Foods plant.
The number of prisoners serving in agricultural capacities is significantly higher in the South, including states like Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana.
In other parts of the country, inmates may work in landscaping, tending greenhouses, raising livestock, beekeeping and fish farming. Proponents of the labour force say that the programmes give prisoners a sense of purpose and better food in the kitchens.
The outlet reached out to several companies that benefitted from the labour. The majority of them did not respond to requests for comment.
An American Civil Liberties study from 2022 found that two out of three prisoners are likely to be forced labourers.