Bowing to pressure from some activists, Whole Foods announced they would quit selling products produced by inmates of the Colorado prison system. Whole Foods said it has sold tilapia, trout and goat cheese produced through the program at some stores for years.
At first, this sounds laudable. Who wants to profit from prison labor? The thought of forced labor pierces through our collective conscience. It sounds inhumane. But when you get past the headlines and hyperbole, the story changes. Walk with me through this.
An innovative approach to prisoner rehabilitation
Colorado Correctional Industries is a leading advocate for prisoner reform. Through 60 programs, CCI provides services and manufactures goods to thousands of customers. Their ouput is diverse – honey production, furniture, saddle making, auto repair, hi-end fishing rods, metal products, CAD design, upholstery, dairies, printing and more.
Their rallying cry is, “From Idle to Impact.”
It began in 1977 and operates with a separate profit/loss bookkeeping system from the prison system. In other words, the work of the prisoners isn’t benefiting the state. The program operates at less than 1 % profit.
The prisoners, all volunteers, among other things, train dogs for blind. They upholster furniture. They learn how to make high-end saddles.
There are 1800 prisoners currently in a program, with a long waiting list to get it. Not only does it keep them occupied, it also provides meaningful skills for the outside. The skills are a fast-track to employment which also helps avoid falling into the same track that caused imprisonment in the first place. According to a 2011 Department study, inmates who worked for CCI were more likely to find jobs upon release and had lower recidivism rates than other inmates who were released. 86 percent of all inmates who had participated in the program were still out of prison after one year.
This program, termed “evil” by protagonists because they prisoners aren’t paid prevailing wagse, has changed the lives of prisoners. Their newsletter gives testimonials of those on the outside. One ex-con making $18 an hour in a machine shop wrote, “There is not a day that I do not think of CCi, and all the tools I was provided and most importantly the opportunity to better myself. I am forever grateful to you,”
Another proudly states that he is making $32/hour as a heavy equipment operator. “Working in the program felt like was back in society and not locked up. I was doing something good in a community setting. Doing a hard day’s work makes a man change.”
Work gives dignity to prisoners
Why is it successful? Because Work = Dignity. King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 9.10, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.”
There is something satisfying about work that reache s into the depths of the human experience. I recently took six weeks off to heal from a surgery. I appreciated the time to recuperate, but I found my mind was melting. I read books and watched decent television, I was clamoring to be productive. I’m not a workaholic, but I realized how good I felt when I contributed to the goals of my employer.
Senator Paul Ryan spoke on dignity of work and siad this, “So while unemployment has an economic effect, it also has a moral effect. When you cannot work, you can’t fulfill your God-given purpose. You can’t make use of your God-given talents.”
This isn’t coming down on the unemployed, so don’t’ get excited. It happens. You lose a job. Your company lays you off. You can’t match your skillset to an employer. It doesn’t mean you are less of a person. But what it does mean is that you aren’t personally fulfilled.
People must have a purpose. Most of all work gives us dignity because it makes us self-sufficient.
If you think Whole Foods took a moral stand and is helping these prisoners by turning away goat cheese, just ask the prisoners. Many of them will likely “lose their job” and have to spend their sentence in their cells with nothing to do and no hope for the future.
That’s a sentence no man or woman should have to endure.