2021 Explanatory Reporting, Small Newsroom finalist

Sourced from Inside

About the Project

Nationwide, more than 650 correctional institutions run some sort of agricultural operation. Yet prisons are notoriously cagey about where all that food winds up. Over the course of several months, reporter Claire Brown set out to shed light on the companies and institutions that source food products from behind prison walls. This three-part series, Sourced from Inside, is the result of that endeavor.

Part One of this series identified the household-name food brands that source ingredients from prisons. They include Dairy Farmers of America, the milk marketing conglomerate that manufactures brands including Borden, Breakstone’s, and Plugra, as well as multinational corporations like Cargill and Louis Dreyfus Company.

The first installment also revealed that some state correctional industries went to extraordinary measures to maintain partnerships with private companies during the pandemic. In Arizona, for example, the largest egg producer in the Southwest asked for permission to house 140 incarcerated workers on site in a makeshift 6,000-foot warehouse for the duration of the pandemic. Arizona Correctional Industries agreed, and even built bunk beds for the operation. By summer, at least five workers had contracted Covid-19.

Part Two of this series is a graphics-driven piece exploring public-sector prison food sales. We found that hospitals, food banks, and schools all serve meals made by incarcerated workers. This installment also included reporting on a small federal program that allows private companies to hire people in prison to work on site for above-minimum wages. In Idaho, incarcerated people process potatoes that are later turned into French fries at chains like Five Guys. Though the pay scale may seem progressive on paper, prisons are allowed to withhold up to 80 percent of workers’ wages for room and board and other expenses, meaning someone making $7.80 per hour may take home just $0.80. A video embedded in the piece elaborates on these substantial deductions.

In Part Three, we follow Ricardo DeLeon, an incarcerated man who supervised a team of about 20 people as they produced burritos in one Washington state’s prison food factories. Concerned about inadequate social distancing procedures and a lack of hand sanitizer in the factory, Ricardo attempted to work with management to lower production quotas and enforce safety procedures. He was unsuccessful, and one of his reports came to work feeling ill in the spring of 2020. The person tested positive for Covid-19, but management did nothing for four days. DeLeon eventually contracted the virus, and the food factory shut down permanently.