Walmart, Tyson distribute food linked to prison labor, AP finds

Journalists Robin McDowell and Margie Mason with the Associated Press published an in-depth article Monday that delves into the chilling reality of U.S. prisoners who harvest food crops destined for distribution by major companies. The prisoners typically work for little or no money.

The article includes an interview with Faye Jacobs, a woman who worked at an Arkansas prison farm during her sentence. She said her pay consisted of “two rolls of toilet paper a week, toothpaste and a few menstrual pads each month,” according to the story.

David Farabough, director of the agricultural division for the Arkansas Department of Corrections, told the AP that “Arkansas’s operations can help build character.”

The AP article focuses primarily on prisoners who face long hours in fields at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, working with hoes or shovels or harvesting crops by hand. The prisoners start off working for free and can eventually earn up to 40 cents an hour, the AP investigation found. At least one source in the article referred to the work as slavery.

The products harvested at prison farms — including livestock — sometimes wind up being distributed by corporations like Arkansas’s own Walmart and Tyson Foods:

Many of the companies buying directly from prisons are violating their own policies against the use of such labor. But it’s completely legal, dating back largely to the need for labor to help rebuild the South’s shattered economy after the Civil War. Enshrined in the Constitution by the 13th Amendment, slavery and involuntary servitude are banned – except as punishment for a crime.

The Arkansas companies were included along with about two dozen others with ties to prison labor. Cargill, a manufacturer headquartered in Montana with a presence in Arkansas, “acknowledged buying goods from prison farms in Tennessee, Arkansas and Ohio, saying they constituted only a small fraction of the company’s overall volume. It added that ‘we are now in the process of determining the appropriate remedial action.’”

The full AP investigation is gripping. It also explores the lack of protections the prisoners have. Not legally considered employees, many safeguards from laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act aren’t available to prisoners, the AP reported, let alone the ability to protest or form unions.

Here’s an excerpt about Jacobs, who recalls being made to swing a hoe in a field with about a hundred other women crowded in a long line during her time on the Arkansas prison farm:

She recounted being made to carry rocks from one end of a field to the other and back again for hours, and said she also endured taunting from guards saying “Come on, hos, it’s hoe squad!” She said she later was sent back to the fields at another prison after women there complained of sexual harassment by staff inside the facility.

“We were like ‘Is this a punishment?’” she said. “‘We’re telling y’all that we’re being sexually harassed, and you come back and the first thing you want to do is just put us all on hoe squad.’”


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