Prison Labor Could Be Fueling The Fast Food Industry

An investigation by the Associated Press reveals major brands' ties to prison labor.

Although The Takeout often writes about fun fast food promotions like purple Grimace shakes or footlong cookies, we also know that some aspects of the industry remain extremely problematic. In addition to various fast food franchises blatantly violating child labor laws in recent years, an investigation from The Associated Press has revealed some brands might also be unknowingly exploiting prison labor as well.

For its investigation, Associated Press reporters gathered information from every U.S. state by examining public records, making inquiries to corrections departments, and even tailing transports of livestock, crops, and prisoners to various work sites. The investigation took two years and the reporting "[ties] hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of agricultural products to goods sold on the open market."

The practice of using prison labor to generate revenue for the state and generate product for large companies was found to be most prevalent in the South, where some of the country's largest prisons are located. The AP report draws historical parallels to the era when slave labor was legal, highlighting the fact that some inmates at a prison in Louisiana work the same soil that enslaved people did when the site was a plantation more than 150 years ago.

The AP found that hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of agricultural products that came to the market through the use of prison labor were linked to the supply chains of many food brands. Household names like Frosted Flakes, Coca-Cola, Riceland, McDonald's, Popeyes, Chipotle, Burger King, and others all appear to be linked, either directly or indirectly, to forced prison labor.

In some cases, the products of prison labor take a long and winding journey before showing up on the menu at well-known fast food chains. For example, in Louisiana, some correctional facilities use prison labor to raise livestock, and reporters followed trailers filled with those cows to a market where they were bought by a local livestock dealer. The dealer then sold them to a Texas beef processor, who also buys cows directly from prisons. The meat from that beef processor ends up in the supply chains of fast food companies and supermarkets, including Burger King and Sam's Club.

"There is nothing innovative or interesting about this system of forced labor as punishment for what in so many instances is an issue of poverty or substance abuse," Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi, told the Associated Press.

Other times, the use of prison labor to power major food brands is more direct. In Mississippi, The Associated Press met with women serving time in restitution centers where they worked at fast food chains like Popeyes to pay off court-mandated expenses. In Alabama, the publication followed inmate transport vans to a company that supplies beef, chicken, and fish to McDonald's. In Colorado, up until 2022, inmates raised water buffalo for milk that was then sold to Leprino Foods, which supplies mozzarella cheese to pizza chains including Domino's, Pizza Hut, and Papa Johns.

It should be noted that some prisons do have voluntary work programs in which inmates choose to do this type of work in order to learn a skill or, in some cases, shave time off their sentences. Some programs use the food products in the prison kitchens to improve the quality of the meals served to the inmates themselves. However, in its current form, the worst prison labor systems don't offer inmate workers the same protections as other employees, and using prisoners this way remains legal. "Enshrined in the Constitution by the 13th Amendment, slavery and involuntary servitude are banned – except as punishment for a crime," the AP notes.

Though many companies have policies against buying directly from prisons or using the products of forced prison labor, they often purchase these products anyway, either knowingly or unknowingly, thanks to the winding path they take through the supply chain.

It might be easy to write off prison labor as incarcerated people "paying their debt to society," but many work in dangerous conditions earning only pennies, or sometimes nothing at all. The AP reports that in Alabama, the state brought in more than $32 million over the past five fiscal years from garnishing 40% of prisoners' wages. In other states, more than half of prisoners' wages are often garnished to pay for things like room and board and court fees.

"Current and former prisoners in both Louisiana and Alabama have filed class-action lawsuits in the past four months saying they have been forced to provide cheap – or free – labor to those states and outside companies, a practice they also described as slavery," reads the Associated Press report in part. Even aside from the differing viewpoints on the ethics of prison labor, it's striking how instrumental it is to creating some of the foods we eat every day. Everyone ought to know where their food really comes from.