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Colorado Prison Profits In Niche Markets

Along the banks of the upper Arkansas River sits a very diverse farm: three different dairy operations, pheasants, lobster and tilapia farms, acres of corn, blackberry bushes, even antique tractor restoration. But there's a twist.

It’s quaint, and pastoral, if you can get past the razor-wire fences that surround the Four Mile Correctional Center outside Canon City, Colo.

The sprawling campus of the state prison houses work camps, minimum security facilities and maximum security prisons. The prisoners also share space with a couple of hundred water buffalo, almost a thousand dairy cows and more than a thousand goats.

I produced a story about the prison’s very unique water buffalo dairy, but there are many other businesses within the prison’s walls.

Smith says when he's looking at a new addition to the prison's wide array of businesses, he's trying to fill a niche market.

All agricultural activities at the prison fall under the purview of Colorado Correctional Industries, a division of the state’s Department of Corrections. Their mandate is to set up for-profit businesses within the prison system. The businesses go beyond farm work, with a motorcycle manufacturing plant, knitting program, custom fly fishing rod shop and a metal engraving studio.

The prisoners also tame wild horses for adoption and run a dog training school.

“You can send your dog to prison and we’ll teach him how to sit,” said Steve Smith, director of Colorado Correctional Industries.

You may be intimately familiar with some of the prison’s products without knowing it.

The tilapia farmed in massive greenhouses on Four Mile’s grounds are sold to Whole Foods grocery stores across Rocky Mountains states. Water buffalo milk is added to cheeses created by Leprino Foods, the world’s largest mozzarella cheese maker. Leprino provides cheese to some of the country’s most recognizable pizza brands. Goat’s milk from the prison is sold to dairies that produce artisanal cheese sold at high-end cheese shops throughout Colorado.

Prisoners with a more artistic touch can pick up paintbrushes to create custom art on mailboxes and ornaments. They can bring back that old John Deere tractor from its rusty grave with a mechanical overhaul and shiny new paint job in the facility’s antique tractor restoration program.

Smith says when he’s looking at a new addition to the prison’s wide array of businesses, he’s trying to fill a niche market. The prison has a fixed work force and a limited ability to fill orders.

Prison farms are nothing new, except over the years many have been dismantled and shuttered. Canadian officials shut down their country’s system of prison farms in 2009. An old prison farm in Atlanta is now a canvas for graffiti artists. Past critics have pointed to the fact that many prison farms and businesses offer up cheap labor to for-profit companies.

Few other states have a prison farm system as expansive as the one at Four Mile Correctional Center.

Some other states dabble in food production. According to Mother Jones, a 2005 Bureau of Justice Statistics study put the total number of facilities that use prisoners for agricultural labor at 298, a number that’s been on the decline for decades.

With Four Mile bringing in new orders and expanding existing programs, there are at least a few prisons where farming is part of the everyday life of prisoners.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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