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Prison Labor and Goat Dairies: A Response

Skyline Correctional Center goat dairy

A recent Fortune story on a Colorado prison-run goat dairy has tapped into a socially sensitive nerve, if today’s response by Jezebel writer Kelly Faircloth is any indication. Fortune writer Jennifer Alsever’s June 2 story on the Skyline Correctional Center goat dairy, located in the East Cañon Correctional Complex in Cañon City, Colo., provides a brief look into the burgeoning business of specialty and agriculture-related correctional industry programs.

In this instance, the goat dairy in question produces milk for Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy, located three hours away in Boulder. The main source of Faircloth’s ire appears to be what she considers an “ethical problem.” In Faircloth’s defense, while Fortune’s is a positive profile, Alsever misguidedly portrays inmate programs as superficial, stating, “Prison labor has gone artisanal… But in recent years a new wave has begun, driven primarily by small businesses that need workers for boutique-size production.”

Anyone who has ever actually set foot inside a prison, or visited a correctional industries program, knows that “artisanal” and “boutique” are inaccurate portrayals of the work environment for inmates, regardless of the type of work they’re doing. That misconception, paired with the resulting ignorant Jezebel article, has created a negative social media flurry regarding correctional industry programs. This is what motivated me to write a response.

In 2012, I wrote a feature for culture on the Skyline goat dairy, which included spending a day at the complex with Colorado Correctional Industries (CCI) director, Steve Smith, who is quoted in the Fortune piece. I also conducted in-person interviews with inmates participating in the program, as well as with Haystack’s president/general manager Chuck Hellmer. As a former Boulder resident and cheese writer/consultant, I was familiar with Haystack Mountain’s milk sourcing and production methods, which is why I pitched the story to culture.

Skyline Correctional Center goat dairy

There are multiple issues I have with the coverage in the Jezebel piece. In this post, I’ll focus on Faircloth’s major beef, in which she says, “The trend (of “artisanal foods”) 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.” She goes on to snark, “On the one hand, these jobs do offer prisoners the chance to acquire some skills and earn a little cash. 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 … 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.”

If Faircloth thinks cheesemaking, milking, and herd management aren’t “growth industries,” and are nothing more than “pleasant diversions” she should probably go spend a day at a dairy, or at least conduct a quick Google search on domestic artisan cheesemaking. As many culture readers know, it’s time-consuming, never-ending, repetitive, laborious work, much of it requiring advanced knowledge of microbiology. Inmates involved in the Skyline dairy program aren’t spending their days swirling wine and snacking on chèvre. They’re busy earning dairy technology certificates, which – for many of them – will lead to gainful, skilled employment after their release. If nothing else, the experience helps them learn to be responsible, and how to nurture other living creatures, as well as better themselves.

As for Haystack’s role in the program, the company is to be commended for helping to implement what is a completely symbiotic relationship. After founder Jim Schott retired and sold his land and goats in 2008, Haystack didn’t have the necessary supply of consistent, high-quality milk. Smith approached them with the idea of constructing a goat dairy, if Haystack would commit to purchasing (below cost) all of the milk. The solution wasn’t based on cheap labor or product. Instead, as Hellmer explained to me, it was based on good animal husbandry, quality raw ingredient, and (admittedly) financial viability/sustainability. Neither could exist without the other, and having visited prisons myself, while I must admit there are differences in how inmates are perceived, the value of animal-assisted correctional industry programs is indisputable — especially at a time when few farmers can afford their own land, and leases are lost due to development.

Skyline Correctional Center goat dairy

I have interviewed dozens of inmates who work in these programs. While each has his or her own reasons for applying, those who aren’t dedicated to the job are transferred. Admittedly, every correctional facility has its own agenda, and not all are as invested in the welfare of their inmates, but the bigger picture is that Faircloth knows not of what she speaks when she suggests CCI’s goat dairy and other correctional industry programs are “exploitative.” The world is not so black-and-white. Inmates do have rights, and when those aren’t met, events like riots and hunger strikes occur. There is much in the public and privatized correctional system that needs improvement, but that’s not the subject at hand.

While not every inmate who participates in a correctional industries program – animal-assisted or otherwise – is going to stay out of prison or lead a productive life, what’s the alternative? These men and women are serving time, and it behooves them – and us – to give them the means to spend that time productively, both physically and mentally. If it benefits yuppies shopping at Whole Foods or bamboo fishing rod aficionados on the side, does it matter? As Smith told me, “Ninety-seven percent of inmates are going to be released. Do we want them to have the tools to be successful, and for them to have vocational credits and a work ethic?” I think we know the answer.

If this discussion piques your interest, please read my other post about the benefits of animal-assisted programs.

Laurel Miller

Laurel is a contributing editor at culture and a food and travel writer based in Austin, Texas. She also serves as editor at Edible Aspen.

7 thoughts on “Prison Labor and Goat Dairies: A Response”

  1. Avatar peny says:

    I think the exploitation comes in at the money.
    they are being paid pennies? on the dollar.
    and its an exhorbinant mark up…..that money doesnt go to run the prison does it?

  2. Hi Gordon, our landed milk cost is within a few percentage points of both producers who are larger and smaller than us. We call around a few times per year to get a sense of the market to make sure we’re paying a fair price. Our milk price is subject to increases just like any other creamery. Just last year our milk price increased by double digits due to increases in feed and herd healthcare costs. I just checked with our president who was instrumental in developing the partnership with CCI and he said that the note about buying milk “(below cost)” was factually incorrect. We pay a legit market price for our milk and I can assure you that our P&L looks just as crappy as any other cheesemaker of our size who makes and packages cheese by hand. To illustrate the quality of the work environment down at the prison, I was actually just down there last week with my farmers market mongers and as we were leaving one of them said, “If that’s jail, you can lock me up forever.” We’d be happy to discuss any aspect of the partnership in greater detail with you, just give us ring at the creamery and ask for Chuck the president or myself. Cheers, John

  3. The price I was given two years ago when I researched this story may no longer be accurate, but I also don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to provide that information, as it wasn’t published in the story. More to the point, I think I’ve provided a very thorough picture of what this program entails, and for anyone who still finds it “exploitative” or “unethical,” there’s nothing more that I can say that will change your mind.

    We’re all entitled to our opinions, but I encourage anyone interested or disturbed by the idea of correctional industry programs that collaborate with small businesses to do the research, and talk to heads of the companies involved, to find out more about how they operate, just so you can better informed as a consumer. That’s the best step we can all make toward promoting food security and a sustainable future in general. Thanks, readers, for your interest in this issue!

  4. Not really sure how these two sentences sit next to each other: “Smith approached them with the idea of constructing a goat dairy, if Haystack would commit to purchasing (below cost) all of the milk. The solution wasn’t based on cheap labor or product…”

    I mean. let’s be honest here. This may be a great thing for the incarcerated men who qualify for this job but the whole model seems — according to that paragraph — to be based on below market raw materials. This program has been in effect since 2008, have any participants in this operation gained employment in the dairy world? At Haystack? ( I would think probably not at Haystack since they would seem to have no need for their skills at full wage, but maybe I’m wrong.) How does this affect other goat dairies locally and nationally?

    If a second part is coming I would love to see those issues addressed.

    1. Sorry these weren’t addressed in part two, as it was already written, but they’re good points. Haystack, to my knowledge, isn’t currently employing any former inmates (at least not at time of my story), but that’s because they don’t have the need for a dairy tech. Chuck Heller stated- and my bs detector is good- that he would hire any one of the dairy grads if need be. Whether that’s true or not, I have personally interviewed inmates who have graduated from these programs and found gainful employment in the field they studied, although statistically, most do end up working construction or other labor jobs. Does it matter? I don’t think so, as long as they’re contributing members of society. How many inmates have the capital to start a horse training business or dairy? Not many, but the jobs exist.

      Let’s be realistic- for it be worthwhile for Haystack to travel 2-3 times a week to pick up milk, that’s a big expense, not to mention fossil fuel expenditure. CCI had to offer a good deal on milk to make that sustainable for all parties involved, and it’s a deal that works for everyone. Inmates aren’t being exploited, which is what most people seem to be reacting to, and Whole Foods (which has nothing to do with “hiring prison labor,” as some Twitter comments hint, and Haystack aren’t evil entities taking advantage. The bigger picture is that Haystack tried, for years, to get a consistent, quality milk source and was unable to do that- we live in the Rockies, and drought and a short growing season are a problem for us; where the prison is located, it’s high desert but a more mild climate.

      I can’t speak to how any correctional industry ag program affects other non-prison industries; I’m not sure anyone could answer that. CCI isn’t undercutting or hurting any other CO goat dairy, and in fact, they also provide supplementary milk to Jumpin’ Good Goat Dairy, when their herd can’t produce enough. Inmates are often doing laborious, dirty work we don’t want to do. If they earn income (which is based on what’s left after they make reparations to victims, and minus room/board, and other factors), can benefit therapeutically, and gain skills, that’s what matters.

      1. So, how much does Haystack pay per gallon?

    2. thank you Gordon! my sentiments EXACTLY. What would make Haystack hire unemployed Americans who NEED jobs to avoid going to prison or dying? Haystack is exploiting cheap labor and worse…saying they can’t operate or continue to operate without TAX SUBSIDIES/BREAKS like cheap prison labor. This is how the “free” market operates….do whatever it takes to maximize profits and minimize expenses….the end! They are no better than Wal-mart who exploits taxpayers to climb the financial ladder….millionaire? na….billionaire…YEAH!

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