Prisoners Are Becoming Some of America's Best Farmers

Inmates in southeastern Colorado's vast prison complex are working a variety of surprising agricultural jobs, milking goats and cows, planting and harvesting vegetables, farming and filleting fish, and harvesting honey.

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Jan 23 2015, 8:30pm

When I visit my local market to pick up a handcrafted, lovingly produced wedge of artisanal goat cheese, I'm not often thinking about the provenance of the milk used to make it: more than likely, I'm thinking about how quickly I can get home, unwrap my probably too-pricey bounty, and slather it all over a fresh baguette. But if I do happen to stop and think about that cheese's origins, I usually picture a green pasture full of happy, frolicking goats, their mothers' udders heavy with the rich dairy that eventually made its way into my new purchase. My mind's not likely to take me to a vast prison complex, one where about 2,000 inmates milk goats and cows, plant and harvest vegetables, farm and filet fish, and harvest honey, all to be sold to area food businesses both large and small.

But if I lived out in the Rockies, I might be quicker to think of Colorado Correctional Industries (CCI), a self-funded state agency whose history employing local inmates to work in its agricultural facilities goes back to 1874. Today, CCI's food-producing program is worth around $65 million, and sources a variety of Denver-area stores, including Whole Foods branches, which buys its farmed tilapia, and Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy, a small-scale cheese producer that established a goat herd at CCI in the early 2000s when its production began to outpace its own tiny Boulder-area farm.

"'Where are we gonna buy more milk?'" company employees wondered at the time, said John Scaggs, director of sales and marketing at Haystack. Scaggs, who hadn't yet joined the company, said that other small dairies in the area told Haystack about CCI, which has run a cow dairy operation since the early 1900s. "We called 'em up and said, 'We got this need for goat milk. You have some experience with dairy. So whaddya say?' And we partnered up."

After investing some capital in CCI's new goat dairy—"putting some skin in the game," Scaggs said—Haystack sent its herd manager down to Cañon City to hire a local who could do her job on-site, as well as to set up the initial group of 125 goats and train the first group of inmates for their new jobs. Today, Haystack's herd at CCI has grown to about 1500 goats, with between 30 and 50 inmates working three dairy shifts per day. In addition to milking the animals, inmates also feed the goats, trim their hooves, bottle-feed the babies, and, yes, muck out their stalls. Gross, for sure, but Scaggs says that CCI's agricultural jobs are the facilities' most coveted.

"Just to be clear, this is an entirely voluntary program," he says, "so there's no issue at all about 'taking advantage' of the workers. All inmates have to work, whether that's in the library, or the cafeteria, or somewhere else—you have to do something to keep yourself busy. And over 1,000 guys are on a waiting list for one of the agricultural programs."

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Goats at Haystack's Cañon City prison dairy.

Not only do those programs—which include jobs in a greenhouse as well as a vineyard that sources area wineries, in addition to the ones mentioned above—pay the most of any prison jobs, Scaggs says, but inmates who work in them are also eligible for a bonus program that awards them extra cash for consistent good performance at their jobs. It's not like the salary is very high—inmates' base pay is 66 cents per day—but most workers do end up earning about $120 per month, Department of Corrections spokesperson Adrienne Jacobson told me in an email. Inmates can save their earnings, Jacobson said, or use them to pay for canteen items, continuing education classes, or correspondence.

But Scaggs doesn't think that money is the reason for the popularity of CCI's ag jobs.

"Most of these jobs are located miles away from the inmate's correctional facility, out in the fresh, open air," he said.

And the prisoners that work in the goat dairy seem particularly affected by their caretaking responsibilities, Scaggs said.

"Being in prison is an isolating, disorienting experience," he said. "This connection with the animals is a tremendous part of their rehabilitation."

Scaggs was quick to correct the misconception that the food companies using cheap prison labor are doing so to save a buck: the savings do not get passed on, he said, at least not to those companies.

"We buy our milk at a free market rate," he explained. "Any dairy profits go back into CCI, which helps them create even more work programs, get those prisoners off the waiting list, reduce incarceration costs, and thereby save Colorado taxpayers money."

So, Colorado cheese lovers, your chèvre may have originated in prison, but it's also helping you save your hard-earned cash.