Associated Press wins February Sidney for Exposing Prison Labor Tied to Hundreds of Popular Food Brands | Hillman Foundation

Associated Press wins February Sidney for Exposing Prison Labor Tied to Hundreds of Popular Food Brands

Robin McDowell and Margie Mason of the Associated Press win the February Sidney Award for “Prisoners in the US are part of a hidden workforce linked to hundreds of popular food brands,” a sweeping two-year investigation that exposes the pivotal role of prison labor in the U.S. food system. 

The reporters followed trucks carrying cattle from a Louisiana prison to a meat processing plant in Texas and traced the beef into the supply chains of McDonald’s, Burger King, and major grocery stores. They found prisoners producing staples including grain, milk, and eggs. 

New laws have made it easier than ever to ship goods produced by incarcerated workers across state lines turning prison labor into a multibillion-dollar enterprise. America’s incarcerated workforce is estimated at 800,000. 

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as a punishment for a crime. This loophole allows prison systems to compel unpaid or very low-paid work, to skirt occupational health and safety standards, and to ban unions and strikes. Many prison systems profit by leasing their inmates to work for private companies. When incarcerated people are hired out for work-release programs, the state often takes a huge cut of their paychecks for room and board–sometimes more than 60%–and they don’t qualify for worker’s compensation if they’re injured on the job because they’re not technically “employees.”

McDowell and Mason even watched prisoners arrive for work on former plantations. Their investigation found that to this day, inmates of color are more likely to be subject to prison labor. Such is the ugly legacy behind our gleaming modern food system. 

“The next time you bite into a McDonald’s chicken nugget or a Burger King Whopper, ask yourself this: Did prisoners produce this food?” said Sidney judge Lindsay Beyerstein. “The possibility should prompt us all to reflect on the ongoing legacy of slavery and the continued exploitation of incarcerated people.” 

Robin McDowell is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who focuses on issues related to social justice for the Associated Press. She spent decades in Southeast Asia. She shared a 2021 Hillman Prize with Mason for her reporting on the palm oil industry. 

Margie Mason is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and was a long-time correspondent in Asia for The Associated Press. She focuses on labor and human rights abuses along with social justice issues. 

In this Aug. 18, 2011 photo, a prison guard rides a horse alongside prisoners as they return from farm work detail at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La.


Lindsay Beyerstein interviewed Robin McDowell and Margie Mason by email:

Q: How did you embark on this epic two-year journey to uncover prison labor in our food system?

A: We were surprised to see that prisoners were being forced to work during the pandemic while most other Americans were being told to stay home. That sparked the question: What else are they being made to do, who is benefiting from it, and how did we get here? In order to understand, we went back in time, looking at prison labor practices that began, initially, during slavery, and ramped up during the brutal convict leasing period that came after the Civil War with the passage of the 13th Amendment. We learned that in more recent years, laws have been passed making it easier to ship goods made by incarcerated workers across state lines, turning prison labor into a multibillion-dollar empire. Though agriculture represents a tiny fraction of the overall workforce, it was a clear throughline from the days of cotton, sugar and tobacco–a story that could help explain the origins of prison labor and how farming still continues today. We knew there would be power in showing readers where crops harvested by prisoners ended up. Through a combination of gathered public records and on-the-ground reporting, we found that everything from beef, dairy, eggs, and grains were winding up in the supply chains of some of the world’s most popular food companies and brands.

Q: Can you give us an overview of your investigative strategy for untangling these complex webs of prison labor, money, and food?

A: Mason and McDowell reached out to more than 80 current and formerly incarcerated people to talk about their experiences in the fields and other prison jobs. We also poured through thousands of pages of court cases and other documents. And we amassed information from public records requests filed in all 50 states. Much of the data was incomplete. So, we followed trucks leaving prisons with cattle bound for the open market, while also tailing prisoner transport vans to see where leased-out incarcerated workers were going. We looked at work release programs involving fast food chains and meat processing plants, as well, quickly discovering there were problems there too, from massive paycheck deductions taken by the state to a lack of protections when incarcerated workers are hurt or killed on the job.  

Q: Were there any documents that you found particularly useful in your investigation?

A: Some correctional departments were helpful in providing data. Sources also helped fill in some of the gaps related to companies where incarcerated people were working. We also scoured the Internet for state audits, annual reports, investigations, etc. We sought records from OSHA and a number of other agencies as well, and we combed through years and years of lawsuits. 

Q: Is it fair to say that most of the workers in these webs are being forced to work and to work without compensation?

A: It varies from state to state. Some workers are not paid at all. Others get pennies an hour to typically less than $1 an hour. And in some states, if they refuse to work, they can jeopardize their chances of parole or face punishment, like being sent to solitary confinement. They also aren’t allowed to protest or form unions. Some work beyond prison walls for work release programs or are sometimes leased out by their prisons to private companies, but they often are not legally considered “employees,” even though they may be working side-by-side with civilians. These incarcerated workers get paid more than those working inside prisons doing maintenance jobs, but their paychecks are garnished more than 60 percent in some places for room and board and other expenses. And because they are often not protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act, incarcerated workers can be especially vulnerable if they are hurt or killed on the job.

Q: Can you summarize the impact your reporting has had so far? 

A: Before the story even came out, Cargill, the largest privately owned company in America, confirmed it had been buying crops from three prisons and said it was in the process of “determining the appropriate remedial action.” Other companies privately said they were looking into the claims and would consider making changes. After publication, the reporters received multiple requests for media interviews ranging from Apple’s daily podcast to public radio’s “All Things Considered.” The story and the social media clips were heavily shared online. Sen. Jeff Merkley posted the story on X and said, “These are the devastating, far-reaching repercussions of the leftover slavery clause in our 13th Amendment. To begin repairing these harms, we must close the loophole. I’m working with @RepNikema and @SenBooker to get the Abolition Amendment passed!”

Q: Every successful investigation helps you grow as an investigator. What did you learn from this investigation that you’ll carry forward from your next assignment?

A: As with other investigations, we learned that time and patience really are key along with reporting, reporting and more reporting! Our editor, Kristin Gazlay, gave us the space and guidance we needed to develop this story, and she really helped us wrestle and shape an incredible amount of material into something readable without a central narrative figure, which was no small feat. There’s no substitute for a great editor on a story like this, and we were incredibly lucky to get another chance to work with Kristin – who came out of retirement – to help tackle this one.  

Q: Did anything unexpected happen in the course of reporting this story

A: We learned so much during the course of this reporting. Before we started this project, we didn’t know much about prison farms that still exist today including, in some cases, on the same soil where slaves toiled more than 150 years ago. And we were surprised to learn how many huge companies were buying directly from these farms, dairies and other operations. The help we received from so many current and formerly incarcerated people was also invaluable. Many had just gotten out of prison and were struggling to make ends meet as they worked to restart their lives. Their time, diligence and care were central to telling this story. 

Margie Mason
Robin McDowell