The Audit: CSU’s Prison Agriculture Lab researches the roots, impact of the prison agriculture industry

Prison Agriculture Lab
Photo courtesy of Jobs For Felons/Flickr Creative Commons.

Going back as far as the Civil War era, agricultural programs had been part of the American prison system. Whether it was touted as a source of cheap labor or a form of restorative justice, providing fresh food for programs in need, or as vocational training to aid prisoners in finding work after their sentence was served. 

But with more than 600 current programs throughout the country, there’s very little data looking at the how, what, and maybe most importantly, why of these programs. Colorado State University’s Prison Agriculture Lab, housed within the College of Liberal Arts, is looking to change that. 

Audit host Stacy Nick spoke with the lab’s co-directors, Joshua Sbicca and Carrie Chennault. They recently published a landmark dataset analyzing the different types of current prison agricultural programs, as well as the underlying drivers behind them.

This transcription has been lightly edited for clarity.

I want to start by giving listeners an understanding of what the Prison Agriculture Lab is.

Josh Sbicca

Sbicca: The Prison Agriculture Lab was founded several years ago with the intent of exploring agricultural practices within the criminal punishment system. We’re particularly interested in not only what’s taking place and where it’s taking place, but why it’s taking place. So, a lot of our research over the past several years has sought to put those pieces all together. 

Chennault: One thing that I really appreciate about the Prison Agriculture Lab is that we’re looking to rethink prison agriculture. Prison agriculture has been studied by social scientists in many disciplines — in my discipline of geography, in sociology, criminology — and we are rethinking some of the basic ideas about what prison agriculture is, and as Josh said, why it happens. 

Sbicca: And in particular, not only looking at the historical reasons for this practice, but also the political and economic benefits provided to companies, as well as the sort of legitimating factors that prison agriculture has for the prison system itself. 

As I mentioned earlier, prison agriculture is not new. Can you talk a little bit about its history?

Sbicca: Farms have been essential to prison development going back to the Reconstruction era and post-Reconstruction era, where a lot of the South started to implement Black codes that criminalize a lot of everyday practices for African Americans. So, for example, loitering or breaking a work contract could land somebody in prison, and those prisons would then lease out convicts to all kinds of operations, including agricultural operations and forestry operations, road building and so on. But the practice is not only taking place in the context of the South, but also in the North, where there were gardens and other kinds of farming operations that were essential to the running of those prisons themselves. So, prisoners have been used both by the state and by private interests in agricultural operations, really for as long as the prison system has been around here in the United States. 

You recently published a landmark study in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, analyzing how different types of prison agricultural programs and their underlying drivers seek to normalize these structures and also to legitimize the prison system itself. What were some of the biggest takeaways that you found in your research?

Carrie Chennault

Chennault: I think some of the biggest takeaways are that prison agriculture happens everywhere. We found cases of prison agriculture in all 50 states, everything from more traditional farming operations — crops or livestock and ranching — to food processing and production. So, you might think people working in a meat processing plant all the way to practices that are more programmatic, like educational horticulture programs, beekeeping, aquaculture, just a really wide array of activities happening in all regions of the country. 

I would also say another of our big findings was what we call the drivers of prison agriculture. Based on our nationwide dataset that we collected, we looked at what were the different goals or justifications that prisons — and the states that we were looking at because we were looking at state prisons — what goals or justifications were they giving for the reasons why prison agriculture exists in their prisons. We looked at a range of individual drivers based on the case studies and based on our conversations with officials at prisons. What we found was that rather than seeing very separate drivers, say, certain prisons really having a financial driver or other prisons really being motivated by more reparative environmental-green types of programing, there was usually a complex intermixing of those drivers at play in all cases and in all types of agricultural practices. 

Sbicca: And I think what’s significant there from our perspective is that across all of these differences, what was shared was really the disciplinary intent behind having agriculture to begin with. What we mean by that in our work is really the intent to shape incarcerated individuals in the image of the prison system itself while then legitimating the practice of farming or ranching or what have you itself. So, for instance, idleness reduction. If you go back in time, it’s one of the long-standing concerns that prison reformers and others have been wringing their hands about. We lock people up and then what are they supposed to do 24 hours a day behind bars? Farming became one of the means by which to keep people busy. So, there’s not always a benign intent behind having people farm. Even in the case of something like an environmental driver for prison agriculture, really, it’s to show that prisons are “more sustainable or green,” again, sort of legitimating prison as a space within which you even need to have people farm to begin with. So, peeling back several of the layers of the intent is really one of the goals of our research in order to paint a more critical representation of what’s going on and also a more historically accurate representation that doesn’t bifurcate between good and bad, but rather sees the power structures and dynamics that are involved in this entire practice and enterprise.

There’s this general idea out there that these programs are either, as we talked about, seeking restorative justice for these prisoners’ crimes, or rehabilitating them or giving them vocational training or mental health benefits. But that’s, as you said, not the whole picture.

Chennault: I think one of the critical questions that we’re raising in our research — and that we found in our study of prison agriculture nationwide — is this question of rehabilitating to what. Because we found, as with many prison industries, prison agriculture is not unique in purporting to provide vocational training and education to incarcerated people so that they will have job opportunities after incarceration. I think that as far as actual evidence goes, it’s unclear that that actually happens. There is anecdotal and case study evidence that some of that training does translate into jobs. But I think there’s a bigger question that we’re asking, and that is what are the types of jobs that people are being trained in? We situate our work by saying that prisons are embedded in relations of racial capitalism. In other words, our political economies are structured through hierarchies of race, class and gender. So, with prison agricultural labor, we’re saying that the types of jobs that people are being trained to do — whether they are receiving a horticulture, educational certificate, whether they’re receiving a pesticide applicator license — these various trainings that they’re getting certified in and these types of jobs, even if they do get them after incarceration, what type of opportunities do they have for fair wages that are livable? What types of employment opportunities will they have to advance in their lives with? Will they ever own land or operate a farm themselves? We think that that’s highly unlikely, given just the larger structuring of society. We think that there’s not enough questioning critically about whether these programs are designed to funnel people into labor situations that may be more dangerous, may lack benefits, decent wages and all of those things that would be more equitable in society. 

In your research, you talk about the idea of “deservingness.” Can you tell me a bit more about what that means?

Chennault: I think a simple definition of “deservingness” is this idea that perpetuates in society that people who are incarcerated because they are “criminals,” that they deserve to be incarcerated and moreover, that they deserve the conditions that are present within prison. A few examples of where deservingness comes out in our study, one of the most obvious would be work assignments and this notion that incarcerated people deserve to be assigned work, hard work, while they are in prison as a way to pay back society. We know based on other studies that people who are given these work assignments are paid maybe $0.50 an hour, maybe a dollar an hour, never a fair wage. So, in that case, there’s a sense of deservingness that they are paying back society. Why do they need to get paid? Another example of deservingness that I think shows up in our data are the vocational programs that I was talking about and really thinking critically about rehabilitating to what types of jobs. What does this say about incarcerated people and what we intend them to become if and when they are released? I think a third sense of deservingness, which is maybe a little bit more nuanced in our data, would be cases of, say, these reparative programs. So, we’re talking about gardens that are designed as spaces for community service, say these restorative justice gardens, where they’re donating produce to schools or food pantries or maybe some of the green programs or even the therapeutic and healing gardens. So, you might say that all sounds good, right? This notion of good versus bad, they’re having healing gardens, not being exploited for their labor. But remember that first there is physical labor involved. Someone is maintaining those gardens, someone’s working them, creating the spaces, and it’s somehow expected with the healing gardens that that’s kind of a benefit to the individual. But interestingly, you know, the individual in this case is perceived as someone who has done harm to society rather than society having done harm to them. So, in that sense, we’re saying that prison is what society deserves, that the individual is the one that needs to repair, make right rather than society making reparation to the communities that have been harmed through racial capitalism.

Sbicca: I would add that when thinking with this idea of deservingness and who even ends up in a lot of these programs, the way the prison system is currently structured is around what’s called classification systems. And so internally within state prison systems, prisoners are classified based on their former careers, their “security risk” levels and so on. Usually, those prisoners that are deemed less risky — at least risk of flight, for example, or becoming a disciplinary problem for the prison system — are shuffled into a lot of these farming programs, particularly the ones that are more reparative. So, there is an internal hierarchy within the prison system itself and who even deserves to go into these opportunities. From our perspective, the prison system shouldn’t be the place that’s making these kinds of designations for people, but also what does that say about the larger prison structure that only a handful of folks even get to go into these programs to begin with? And our intent is not to discount the individual benefits that people may derive from these kinds of programs because we know anecdotally and in case study evidence there is a lot of healing that can happen from working in the soil and with plants and with animals. That said, it takes place within a larger institutional context, and it’s that institutional context that our research really speaks to and questions the legitimacy of.

There are going to be people that hear this and say these are prisoners who have committed crimes, some of them are truly horrific crimes. Why should I care about these programs? Why is this something that I should be concerned about?

Sbicca: Part of our work points to the fact that it’s not just about farming and whether or not we should or shouldn’t have farming programs. By looking at agricultural operations, we can see some of the larger logics of the prison system itself. Those logics include discipline and control, particularly of Black, Latinx, immigrant and Indigenous people, as well as gender nonconforming folks, poor folks. We know that these are the people that disproportionately make up our prison population, and yet even on the prison systems own terms — for example, recidivism rates, we know that the prison system continues to re-incarnate people and even again on its own terms of rehabilitation fails in that endeavor. Looking at agricultural operations really reveals that in many respects. Because of that, we ask what is the need for the prison system at this point? And is this the place then to be teaching people how to farm and how to ranch? And if, as a society, we actually value these kinds of practices, there are lots of other ways through which we can support people to come into that industry that are non-carceral in nature and that don’t require the prison system to do that. In fact, we can reinvest the resources that are going into the prison system, into other kinds of public initiatives that are healing and that put safety first.

This is really a first of its kind national data set that you put together. How will it be used?

Chennault: I see a lot of uses for the data set. Certainly, our own research, we’re continuing to analyze this data as well as pulling this data together with other publicly available data sets to get a bigger sense of the political, social and economic context in which prison agriculture exists in the United States. So, that ongoing work that the Prison Agriculture Lab is pursuing. Our lab is excited to get students involved in projects. We are using this data in classrooms. For instance, I’m teaching the geography of farming systems this semester and giving students an opportunity to dive into this dataset into other things that the Prison Agriculture Lab has produced, like our story map that we just released. And we’re also hoping that this dataset gets used by other researchers, by activists, by community members, and even just the broader public to get a better understanding of what’s going on. 

This is the first time that a dataset of this type has been released, and so we’re just excited for more collaborations and seeing what might be possible. 

The prison system has been around for so long. Why is it that this is the first time that such a large and deep look has been done?

Chennault: I think to some extent it’s because we’ve looked at these forms of prison agriculture as being separate. Historically scholars have looked at gardening and horticulture as being separate from large scale crop production systems, as being different from some of the contract programs with agro industries. So, historically, I think a lot of this has been looked at on a case study basis, and as being separate domains. So, I think even our approach to bringing together these separate modes of discipline, this rehabilitation and exploitation into one framework, is one of the reasons. Efforts have been made to catalog other measures, such as the number of laborers in gardening and farming. And so there have been measures of that in the past, and there have been measures by the Department of Justice itself in terms of how many prisons are participating in farm work requirement programs. 

Sbicca: It’s actually really difficult to assess what goes on in prisons. Undertaking a large primary data collection endeavor like we’ve done just takes a lot of time and a lot of resources and it requires some level of cooperation on the part of the prison system. So, bringing all of those pieces together is often a barrier to entry for even collecting the information you would need to begin to answer some of the questions that we’re trying to answer. So, I think that’s another big part of the equation. 

Joshua Sbicca 

Joshua Sbicca is an educator, community builder and scholar. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Colorado State University, and co-director of the Prison Agriculture Lab. He is also the author of Food Justice Now!: Deeping the Roots of Social Struggle and a co-editor of A Recipe for Gentrification: Food, Power, and Resistance in the City.

Carrie Chennault

Carrie Chennault is a feminist geographer and Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Geography at Colorado State University. She is also a 2020-2021 CSU School of Global and Environmental Sustainability Leadership Fellow. She is a contributor in Feminist Geography Unbound: Discomfort, Bodies, and Prefigured Futures and her scholar-activist research engages feminist, queer and Black geographies and political ecology in studying pathways toward food and environmental justice in the United States.

About the Prison Agriculture Lab

The Prison Agriculture Lab is a collaborative space for inquiry and action that focuses on agricultural practices within the criminal punishment system. Its research and advocacy focus on place, power, inequality and resistance. It is informed by scholarship, art and activism that challenges racial capitalism and advances food justice and abolition. Given the social and ecological reach of the agricarceral industrial complex into many sectors of society, the Prison Agriculture Lab supports and works with post-docs, graduate students, and undergraduate students with a range of interests, methodological skills, and topical interests. The lab also provides a platform for connecting with members of the public who share its commitments and passions.

About The Audit

Recorded at the KCSU studio, Colorado State University’s new podcast, The Audit, features conversations with CSU faculty on everything from research to current events. Just as auditing a class provides an opportunity to explore a new subject or field, The Audit allows listeners to explore the latest works from the experts at CSU.