Mapping the Unfree Labor of Prison Agriculture: A Conversation with Carrie Chennault and Josh Sbicca

Tattooed forearm and hand holding a small sagebrush plant

This episode about prison agriculture and racial capitalism in the United States is the second piece of the Violent Environments series, which explores how violence is enacted through, for, and on environmental spaces, including land, water, and air. Series editors: Kristen Billings, Rebecca Laurent, and Rudy Molinek.

Wisconsin—America’s dairyland—has a long history of agricultural prison labor. For over 100 years, the WI Department of Corrections has operated the Waupun State Farm, and, in 2017, the farm rolled out a dairy training program for incarcerated individuals, which received a fresh injection of $6 million in funding in 2022 to expand its facilities. The farm exists alongside more than a dozen similar dairy and vegetable operations at carceral institutions scattered throughout the state. 

Wisconsin, though, is far from exceptional—prison agriculture is ubiquitous throughout the United States. But reporting tends to be piecemeal, with a handful of isolated programs rising to public awareness. What is the scope of prison agriculture in the contemporary moment? And how do discourses of prison agriculture’s “therapeutic value” and “vocational benefits” circulated by carceral institutions reinforce inequality and legitimize the criminal punishment system?

That’s where the Prison Agriculture Lab steps in. 

Dr. Josh Sbicca, Dr. Carrie Chennault, and their collaborators at Colorado State University undertook the first-ever nationwide study of prison agriculture, seeking to systematically understand where it takes place, in what forms, and to what ends. Earlier this year, the Lab communicated its findings using an interactive story map, “Growing Chains: Prison Agriculture and Racial Capitalism in the United States.” 

We discuss the results of their study, as well as how we might sow the seeds of abolitionist food futures.

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kristen Billings: How have your personal experiences led to your work on food justice?

Josh Sbicca is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Colorado State University.

Josh Sbicca: My personal experiences with food justice really begin in many respects as a college student. I was involved in a lot of food labor organizing, specifically doing solidarity work with Coalition of Immokalee Workers, working with United Students Against Sweatshops, particularly their Killer Coke campaign, as well as supporting on-campus cafeteria workers. 

But over the years, I also started to learn and participate in urban agriculture in the San Francisco Bay area, and through that was connected with folks doing various kinds of food justice work. And that led me to working with Planting Justice, which is an Oakland-based food justice organization—I sat on their Board of Directors for a really long time.

Those experiences opened my eyes to a whole range of connections between inequality and the food system and the different avenues through which it’s possible to make change. And really, ever since, I’ve been involved in organizing work at these intersections. 

Carrie Chennault is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Colorado State University.

Carrie Chennault: For me, my connection to food justice really started with personal experiences of precarity and thinking about the relationships between food insecurity and housing insecurity. Those were really personal experiences for me as a teenager, as a young adult.

And eventually, I went to graduate school and decided to study sustainable agriculture. I got really involved with community gardening, directly working with low-income folks and people experiencing homelessness and trying to figure out how food and agriculture could be used as a way to address broader, systemic injustices.

I think it’s important while approaching food justice to have a deep understanding of precarity—it’s about survivability, understanding that everyone needs food, everyone needs a home, everyone needs to meet these basic needs. But also, we should think about food justice in terms of joy, connection, and the relationships you can experience through food and the embodiment that goes with it. 

KB: The Prison Agriculture Lab released Growing Chains, a public-facing story map, earlier this year, which is a distillation of your findings from the first-ever nationwide study of prison agriculture. What findings came out of this work that struck you or were surprising to you? 

JS: One of the big ones for me is the fact that there are so many prisons with agriculture of some kind—there are at least 660 prisons, which is a majority of adult state-run prisons in the United States. That in and of itself was really eye-opening. 

The other piece for me, though, was discovering that there is pretty much every kind of agriculture in every region of the country. Granted, there are geographic differences, and our work seeks to explore some of that, but that was the other important piece: these practices are not isolated strictly to the South, despite this overdetermination in the American imagination about convict leasing and prison slavery being a Southern institution.

The reality is that these practices are widespread and it’s important to shed a light on the more endemic nature of agriculture to the prison system. 

CC: Something that really struck us was the overlaps in what we call drivers of prison agriculture—understanding the justifications or goals that the prison system uses to explain why they take on agriculture in their prisons. 

Often you might hear a narrative that prison farm labor is exploitative, that states are profiting off of people. And yes, financial drivers are definitely a part of the picture across the country, in all regions. But it was really fascinating to see this intermixing of drivers, the ways that prisons use financial drivers coupled with what we call reparative drivers, as well as community-service and sustainability-oriented justifications. Or, on the other hand, vocational and educational types of drivers.

We saw this complex intermixing in Georgia, in Washington State, coast-to-coast and everywhere in between.  

Inmates’ garden at Lorain County Jail, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Rona Proudfoot.

KB: You write in the story map that, “The conditions of present-day agriculture should be understood within the realities of racial capitalism.” Could you explain why racial capitalism is so vital to understanding the food system in the U.S.? 

CC: I think at a very broad level, racial capitalism—this idea that capitalism was never not racist, that racism isn’t just a byproduct, but is a structuring logic of society—undergirds both these ideas of organized exploitation and organized abandonment that are constitutive of the prison system along ethno-racial hierarchies. If we’re getting away from these binaries of north and south, exploitative and rehabilitative, it points us to looking at prison agriculture as both inheriting this legacy of racial capitalism but also reproducing racial capitalism.

And you can see that in the types of drivers, again these objectives that prisons are giving such as vocational training, this idea that you are rehabilitating people to join the workforce. And we ask this question: rehabilitating to what? What types of jobs? Well, jobs in the food and agricultural system as we know are very much driven along these ordering hierarchies of race, gender, and class.

JS: Historically speaking, if we’re talking about how racial capitalism structures the food system, from the moment of European contact here—in what’s now the United States and North America—you have mass dispossession of Indigenous people all across the continent, as well as the introduction of stolen people who were then enslaved in the plantation system in the South. And the expendability of people racialized as “other” props up white agriculture, white food systems, and, ultimately, white power in the development of this country. 

The expendability of people racialized as other props up white agriculture, white food systems, and, ultimately, white power in the development of this country. 

And that’s really part and parcel of what happens in the prison system. Prison agriculture is just one more instantiation of the way the food system and agricultural systems in the U.S. have always been operating.

And then on the backend, there is this ideological power that prison agriculture has to place people in what white and powerful entities consider their appropriate place—that power to place people through language and the carceral system shapes people’s economic opportunities through these kinds of hierarchies.   

KB: Here in Madison, in 2020, a student circulated a petition to stop the University of Wisconsin from purchasing milk products sourced from prison dairy farms. But this connection between college campuses, food, and incarceration is far from unique. As professors and researchers working in this context, where do you see higher education fitting into the problem? 

CC: On so many levels! I think at the really big, broad conceptual level, the very disciplinary logics, the colonizing and racist legacies of the university persist into the present. So, I think there are a lot of parallels between the history of prisons and the history of the university, how the university operates and what it does.

And my students are always very clear that they see campuses as carceral spaces, structurally. You see that with the ways that there are limited resources for students of color, the ways that our pedagogy and the lessons that are taught at universities more often than not reinforce the status quo, the very policing and surveillance that happens at universities. And there are great groups like Cops off Campus that are challenging this police surveillance. 

College campuses certainly fit into the problem. But I would also say that they’re fitting into the solution. I am inspired by students and the work that they’re bringing to us—saying, “we want classes to talk about abolition, we want to do research projects with the Prison Agriculture Lab,” or in other spaces that are doing this kind of engaged and activist-scholar work. I think it’s both.

Protestor at Philadelphia Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) Office. Photo courtesy of Joe Piette.

JS: Yeah, and I’d like to uplift a couple of specific examples that show a lot of student power and community power to hold universities accountable for the ways in which their food and agricultural systems rely on incarcerated labor or are entangled in carceral institutions. So, at the University of Florida, there was the case of a campaign to get the University to cut its contracts with the Florida Department of Corrections. The University had been using prison labor at their agricultural experiment stations for decades, so you have agricultural science being subsidized on the back of free labor. There was a campaign and a huge coalition of students that managed to get the University to cut those contracts. That was a really important win, and I think a lot of people should look to that for some inspiration. 

And then the other one is thinking about food service. One of the largest companies that provides food to college campuses is Aramark. And Aramark is deeply entangled in carceral institutions. It’s one of the major providers of prison food and has been embroiled in many scandals around the country as it pertains to the quality of the food and the use of prison labor. We should be asking as people working in or students in universities, how are these everyday, mundane goods that we can find on campus entangled in carceral institutions, and how do we cut those ties?   

KB: For the two of you, what does presence look like in an abolitionist food system? What do abolitionist food futures look like and how might we arrive there? 

CC: A huge, huge question, and also, a simple one. I think we do know what an abolitionist food system looks like. And if Ruth Wilson Gilmore and the broader field of Black geographies teach us anything, it’s this constant reminder of the historical present. We know with abolition that we’ve inherited this legacy of dispossession and displacement, and the opposite of that is healing and connection. 

Josh and I talk to each other, and we ask this simple question: Why is it, if gardens are great and getting out in the soil and growing food, eating food together is great, why does it have to take place within carceral structures? Why do carceral structures exist? Can’t we bring that out of the prison system and bring it out of the carceral mindset, more largely?

But I think that is a matter of repair. We have to repair those legacies of dispossession, repair those legacies of displacement. And these are big, tough questions that have to happen at a large scale, but I also do think there are every day and embodied kinds of actions that we can take through building direct relationships and establishing connections of care in this deep abolitionist sense of the word. 

Abolitionist food futures really begin with revaluing our relationship to food and the land, revaluing the people that do that work, and the ecosystems that make it all possible.

JS: On a simple level, a lot of the food system has been built through exploitation, through demarcation, through dispossession, and through assigning to certain groups the hardest work and not valuing that work, and not valuing the land on which it takes place. And so for me, in many respects, abolitionist food futures really begin with revaluing our relationship to food and the land, revaluing the people that do that work, and the ecosystems that make it all possible.

If abolition is about presence and worldmaking and worldbuilding, then we have to model what these food and agricultural systems look like, and we have to model relationships that don’t operate on these divisive logics, but instead operate on logics that care for and respect the diversity of what it means to be human. 

There’s a lot of unlearning that actually needs to happen as well. So, it’s a political project that’s also a consciousness-level raising project—that we have to understand and we also have to act really differently. 

And I don’t think that anybody has all of the answers, and I don’t think we need to have all of the answers. Working toward this vision, it’s about the process and a commitment to the process, knowing that we’re unlikely to see its completion in our lifetimes, and maybe for generations. I like to operate from that principle of let’s keep working and correcting as need-be and see where it gets us.   

KB: I love that—it’s a reminder, again thinking with Ruth Wilson Gilmore, that abolition is a method, not an end goal. 

CC: The only thing I’ll add is that we’re always seeking to make connections and build out the network of the Lab, and I hope that we can continue finding ways to enact these visions together. 

Featured image: Incarcerated individual at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Washington State holds sagebrush transplant in hand. Photo by the Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington, 2015.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Kristen Billings is a PhD student in Community and Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her current research investigates the environmental impacts of militarism and situates resistance to U.S. military pollution and occupation within anti-imperial and abolitionist struggles. Contact.

Carrie Chennault is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Colorado State University and activist-scholar. Her research engages feminist and Black geographies and political ecology to understand how racism structures US food, agricultural, and environmental systems, and how communities are working toward possibilities for transformation. Contact.

Joshua Sbicca is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Prison Agriculture Lab at Colorado State University. As an educator, scholar, and community builder, he is committed to work that situates agriculture and food as sites for transformative change. He is 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. Contact.