Making license plates is the stereotypical job for a prisoner, but in California’s Central Valley, a group of inmates are doing very different work, supplying milk to almost every prisoner in the state system.
They earn just 35 to 95 cents an hour, but inmates at Corcoran state prison say the job gives them plenty of other benefits.
“I like coming out here to be away from the people in the yard,” Jose Franco tells me. He got locked up for vehicle theft. I watch him move about 20 cows inside the milking building, then gently attach pumps to their teats and start milking. Franco has never worked with animals or agriculture before, but for four months, he’s clocked in here at 4 a.m. every day he can — even though he’s only assigned to work here five days a week.
The dairy sits on 30 acres, on prison grounds but outside what’s called the “secure perimeter.” Corcoran is a high-security prison. Only inmates deemed to pose the lowest security-risk can work at the dairy.
Just outside the milking building, inmate Tony Sao maneuvers a loader to scoop oats and hay which get mixed in a feeder. He’s been at this job for a year, as he does time for grand theft.
“It’s good,” he says. “The days go by as long as I’m keeping busy and doing a productive program.”
Like Franco, this is also Sao’s first job in agriculture. That’s typical, says Rob Roehlk, an administrator with the California Prison Industry Authority, who oversees the dairy and milk processing programs at Corcoran. Most inmates are from urban areas, he says.
“They come in and they haven’t really seen a cow before, haven’t milked a cow before.” Some inmates, like Franco, come from a construction background. Some, like Sao, have experience operating heavy equipment. “We just build on it,” Roehlk says.
The California Prison Industry Authority runs like a business, selling products like the milk produced at Corcoran to prisons and other state agencies. Inmates hold lots of different jobs, but Prison Industry employees are a select group, just under 7,000 of California’s 116,000 inmates. More than 10 percent of those work food-related jobs, from coffee roasting to food packaging to almond farming.
For Roehlk, who comes from a family of dairy farmers, running a dairy in a prison is a little different than the private sector. He says he rarely deals with violence, but whole-prison lockdowns are another story.
“The cows don’t wait if you don’t have workers,” he says. “They don’t wait to be milked or fed.” Non-inmate staff members step in to take up the slack.
There are other issues: keeping a lookout for smuggled items like cellphones, and doing hourly inmate head counts. Though they’re screened before they’re placed here, a number of inmates have escaped from the dairy. They were all caught.
“Our payoff as an organization is to employ inmates and teach them a job skill, so that when they are released, they can get out there and sustain a living,” Roehlk says.
However, the Prison Industry Authority doesn’t collect employment data on former inmates, so it’s hard to tell how many get jobs when they’re released, or how many are employed in field they worked in while incarcerated.
The agency reports that their former employees return to prison about 30 percent less frequently than the general prison population, though it’s a little hard to compare those groups, since Prison Industry workers are carefully selected in the first place.
Despite the lack of employment data, inmate Edward Wilson is confident his experience at the dairy will get him a job on the outside.
Wilson was hand-picked out of a crew of 17 to give me a tour of the dairy’s milk processing facility. While in prison, he has earned a number of milk processing licenses, which allow him to work in the lab, testing milk for bacteria. He says he’d like to look for similar work when he gets released in 2017.
With a half-dozen supervisors, guards and public information officers surrounding us, Wilson says with a laugh, “Hopefully, I’ll get a good recommendation,” and then he turns more serious. “I really enjoy what I do. I consume the milk, and I wouldn’t want to send out milk that’s not good for consumption. I take pride in what I do.”
That’s kind of new for Wilson, who is serving a sentence for second-degree attempted murder.
“I’ve never been involved in things like this, but I would like to pursue it back into society,” he says. “Not just for this job, but it shows what you’re capable of for any kind of job.”
Lisa Morehouse is an independent journalist based in California. This story is part of California Foodways, a series exploring the intersection of food, history, culture and economy, funded in part by Cal Humanities. A version of this story previously appeared on KQED.org.