One of the core values of Slow Food is the idea of fairness—the goal that everyone in the chain of production should be treated fairly. Another is expanding food access. For those reasons, the fact that Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) and its contractor, Ohio Penal Industries (OPI), are in the meat- and milk-production business piqued our interest.
The benefits to such programs are not insignificant. Many inmates are happy to take part in them because they provides training for future jobs. There may be advantages to society, as well: OPI’s meat program boasts a recidivism rate for its prisoners of 10.4%, compared to nearly triple that for the general population. [ETA: Though it is hard to say whether the decrease is due to the advantages that the program conveys or the selection of inmates who are less likely to be repeat offenders.] And revenues (OPI reported FY2011 revenues of $6.3m for its meat-processing facilities) can help defray the cost of prisons.
At the same time, sales of prison-made products to the public are generally touchy, for good reason. Though the inmates are typically compensated for their work, they’re not paid well—most earn around $1 an hour. The use of inexpensive labor in a facility for which taxpayers pay the rent raises the prospect that prison industries will unfairly undercut private industry. In recognition of this concern, Ohio passed a law in 1884 restricting prison-made goods from competing directly with private manufacturers. In 1981, however, the Ohio legislature reversed itself by passing House Bill 654, which authorized OPI to market sales with the private sector. At present, the DRC’s farm operations are surprisingly extensive—surely more so than is needed to supply the prisons themselves with food.
Accordingly, although the meat processing facility located at the Pickaway Correctional Institution was originally intended to reduce costs to taxpayers by providing meat to Ohio’s burgeoning prison population, it soon expanded into the private market. According to Rebecca Avery, the program’s administrator, 25% of the beef produced now goes to OPI’s Prime Cuts Program, where it makes its way to restaurants and grocers. The price is set at a fraction of the price found in the USDA Weekly National Carlot Meat Report, which reflects national averages; the meat is sold to a separate company for marketing and resale.
The program is not without its merits. Prisoners deserve good food, and if the quality of their food is improved by farming and processing facilities that they willingly participate in, the result is probably a net gain for prisoners and taxpayers alike. If the prisons produce food that improves the quality or quantity of what is available in foodbanks, even better.
Nevertheless, prison-produced meat that undercuts private producers in an open market is truly problematic. It is not fair to taxpayers, who could have more of their prison costs offset. Most of all, though, it is not fair to the farmers whose livelihood is threatened. It raises the spectacle of a society in which farms are run out of business and prison labor produces a significant percentage of our food. The food produced might seem cheaper and therefore be seductive to consumers, but the true cost would come out of their state taxes—and would give them a financial interest in high rates of incarceration.
This system deserves to be reconsidered. If it continues to expand, it will constitute a genuine danger, especially to those small farmers who are least able to compete. There is no compelling need for correctional institutions to enter the farming business: the benefits of lowering taxpayers’ costs for incarceration are far outweighed by the threat to farmers.