Are Prisons Creating the Next Generation of Cheesemakers?

Are Prisons Creating the Next Generation of Cheesemakers?

Prison dairy farms are not only creating a new generation of trained cheesemakers but also providing incarcerated people with the ideal way to insert themselves back in society.

Prisons have long offered incarcerated people the opportunity to work while serving time: making flags, office furniture, and clothing are common ways for prisoners to make a few extra dollars. But a few revolutionary programs in Colorado, California, and Wisconsin are allowing incarcerated people to take their jobs outdoors: working at dairies allows inmates to enjoy the fresh air and the company of animals while also learning a useful trade that may help them find work once they are released from prison.

Colorado Correctional Industries’ cow dairy is one of the oldest in the nation, dating back to the early 1900s.

“It was one of the very first programs implemented within the Colorado prison system,” explains Mark Fairbairn, Public Information Officer at the Department of Corrections, noting that Colorado’s very first prison occupied over 8,000 acres of pasture land, which was originally used for the raising of beef and dairy cattle.

While these animals originally supplied only the meat and milk necessary to feed the prison population, in 1977, CCi was given the jurisdiction to operate independently as a cash-funded agency. Today, the CCi dairy sells 80 percent of the milk produced by its 800 cows to Dairy Farmers of America; the remaining 20 percent is used in the prison system.

In 2002, CCi expanded to goat milk, opening a dairy with approximately 250 goats.

“To our knowledge, CCi’s goat farm is the largest goat farm operation in the state of Colorado,” says Fairbairn.

The milk produced at the dairy is sold exclusively to two vendors, one of which, Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy, used to supply goat cheese to Whole Foods. That is, until 2015, when the chain announced that it would be removing this cheese (as well as tilapia also produced by CCi) from its stores after consumer complaints over the controversial practice.

While some raised the issue of prison work taking jobs away from non-incarcerated workers, others noted the low wages paid by the program. But in reality, prison work actually helps a lot of inmates get off on a better foot when their incarceration reaches its end.

An NPR story published this summer looked into life at the prison goat dairy in Cañon City, Colorado, a five-minute drive from the buildings where the inmates live.

“When you’re there, you can almost forget you’re in a prison,” writes NPR. “The goats, in their pens, look out over irrigated corn fields, the Arkansas River in the distance, and barren hillsides on the other side. To be perfectly honest, it’s beautiful.”

Most of the inmates working at the dairy are nearing the ends of their sentences. Good behavior and earning their GED has earned the workers this opportunity: outdoor work and better pay than at most prison jobs (a few dollars a day in contrast to less than a dollar a day).

“It’s a great thing,” Jeremiah Pate told NPR – one of several who responded positively to questions about the position. “It beats the alternative. Rather than sitting in your tiny little cell, you get to come out here.”

And best of all, inmates are investing in their futures.

“Part of the deal, when you’re in prison, you have to work anyway,” former inmate and program participant Duwane Engler told NPR; Engler now has small herd of about a dozen goats living in the backyard. “If you’re in a maximum facility, you’re going to do work, you’re never going to leave the facility, and you’re scrubbing walls with a toothbrush, basically. These guys actually get out, they have a purpose, and they make more than 60 cents a day.”

A similar program exists in Wisconsin, where inmates from John Burke Correctional Center can take an eight-week apprenticeship course teaching them how to raise calves, grow cops to feed cows, and operate a dairy farm, with the goal of helping them get work in farming upon their release. In Wisconsin, home to nearly 10,000 dairy farms – 12 of which had already hired graduates of the program as of this summer – it’s a useful way to help inmates learn a marketable skill.

This is especially true given the fact that many of the participants in these programs have never worked in agriculture before. Rob Roehlk, who oversees the dairy and milk processing programs at Corcoran State Prison in California, tells KQED that many workers “come in and they haven’t really seen a cow before, haven’t milked a cow before.”

“We know that if they have gainful employment and employment where people want those skills they have a better chance at success as it relates to reintegration into their communities,” Wisconsin Department of Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher tells Channel 3000, and California Prison Industry Authority tells KQED that their former employees return to prison about 30 percent less frequently than the average.

The field is rapidly growing. CCi is exploring new programs such as the manufacture of ice cream and butter to sell back to Colorado prison facilities or its newest venture, buffalo mozzarella, which began in 2012 and now includes 350 water buffalo.

“The opportunity exists for CCi dairy inmates to work in any number of farm-oriented programs upon their discharge,” explains Fairbairn. “Additionally, the skills, experience and work ethics all CCi offenders gain while working within CCi programs provide opportunities for employment in any industry. Continuing education, soft skills, and the self confidence needed to succeed on their own, are all valuable traits CCi offenders possess after working within our vast division of programs.”

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Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.