Fancy Goat Cheese Apparently Produced With Prison Labor


Artisanal ain’t just for underemployed Brooklynites anymore: The trend has so thoroughly infiltrated America that now, prison inmates are passing their time milking goats, helping produce cheese that’ll ultimately be sold at Whole Foods.

Fortune spotlights Colorado Corrections Industries, where six inmates milk a thousand goats twice a day, then turn the results over to the cheese-makers at Haystack Mountain. The growing program employs 2,000 prisoners at 17 facilities overall; inmates also breed and pack tilapia for Arrowhead Fisheries, among other tasks. Both companies sell their products at Whole Foods.

Inmates have long churned out odds and ends, from license plates to furniture sold to government groups. But suddenly there are many small enterprises looking to plug holes in their small-batch supply chains, opening up an opportunity for CCI and similar outfits. “I get one to two calls a week from companies,” according to director Steve Smith. “These days inmates can be found making everything from redwood canoes to specialty motorcycles, fishing poles, and saddles.”

Obviously, this presents a bit of an ethical problem.

On the one hand, these jobs do offer prisoners the chance to acquire some skills and earn a little cash. (CCI’s base rate is 60¢ per day, though they say the monthly average pay comes to $300 to $400, “with incentives.”) Smith insisted he turns down companies simply shopping for dirt-cheap labor. Plus goat-wrangling probably counts as a pleasant diversion when you’re in the slammer.

Then again, we’re talking about prison, here. It’s simply not the same as a job on the outside. Prisoners don’t have the same workplace protections, even $400 a month isn’t exactly make-it-rain money, and where exactly are inmates supposed to apply these new goat-milking skills in their post-prison lives? Not sure that’s a real growth industry. The trend also seems a lot less twee when you consider the rise of privatized prisons. Even if you assume CCI is run by a bunch of saints (which seems naive), it doesn’t take a legal genius to see how this could be exploitative.

And it seems safe to assume this won’t really fly with the Whole Foods crowd. Generally one pays a markup to avoid worrying about whether one’s snacks were ethically made.

Photo via AP Images.

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