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Orange is the New Green

Orange is the New Green, or how ‘Restorative Justice Programs’ mask unpaid prisoner labor.

According to a Missouri Dept of Corrections report, [pdf] prison gardens provided 163 tons of fresh produce which was donated to various charitable food banks in 2013. There are 23 such gardens across the Missouri archipelago of prisons tended to by inmates. Five of these gardens are at 120 day sentence facilities or release programs. One is located at a drug and alcohol treatment facility, one is at a “therapeutic” center, and three are state-run halfway houses.

Prison gardens are just one of many programs in the DOC’s restorative justice playbook. Unlike work details that pay a few cents per hour to the inmate’s account, time spent doing restorative justice activities is completely unwaged and compulsory. The inmate is expected to donate labor in a good-will gesture to “repair the harm they have caused their victim or the community” as the Office of the Deputy Director interprets restorative justice.

Inmates start tilling the land and planting seeds in April, and between July and November they cultivate tomatoes, bell peppers, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, zucchini, yellow squash, butternut squash, cucumbers, carrots, green beans, cantaloupe, watermelon, okra, onions, jalapeno peppers, potatoes and pumpkins. The 2013 statewide harvest of 163 tons was donated to nonprofit food pantries, shelters, churches, nursing homes and school districts. No information was available on the growing methods, chemicals used, how many hours per day/week are spent in the garden, or if any of the fresh produce was consumed by the inmates.

Sadly, when the 4000 or so people currently serving time on felony drug charges in Missouri (or 8 other states) are released they will forever be banned from receiving SNAP benefits (food stamps) or temporary cash assistance programs thanks to Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform bill and Missouri’s reluctance to opt-out. So upon release, these very same groups receiving the fruits of unpaid inmate labor could likely be feeding former inmates with little to nowhere else to turn.

Restorative justice in this form is a perverse and capitalist reading of a philosophy that should help reduce recidivism and reduce harm, both to victims and those in the carceral state.

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