Cannery and Tag Plant

Courtesy of Denver Public Library – Western History Museum

Centuries of prison labor managed by a carceral state have been variously justified as education and rehabilitation, but fiscal contribution to prison and prisoner maintenance is always acknowledged as additional justification.[1] Prison labor is profitable and tax-relieving.[2] The history behind two of the Colorado prisons’ oldest and most profitable industries, the cannery and tag plant, affirms the economic motives for prison industry. These two kinds of industrial production both teach prisoners skills with basic metalworking machinery. Both canning and tag enterprises have generated immense profit for the prison and the state of Colorado, but with seemingly lesser rehabilitative effects than other profit-making enterprises such as the animal training programs addressed elsewhere in this collaborative study.

Are the profits earned through the cannery and tag plant these enterprises’ primary or even sole purpose, and educational or rehabilitative benefits only purported? Or does this kind of work also have positive force for inmates in terms of social and work skills? One perspective suggests that a job so basic as to require minimal training, alongside a specious suggestion that that he or she can use this experience in order to find a job once out of prison, only belittles the inmate, who receives only pennies a day for virtually robotic toil. Support for such work as employment beneficial to offenders assumes that many prisoners had no prior work experience. The actual reasons for the establishment and operation of prison industries, in the case of the Colorado State Penitentiary, are evident in the start-up of both the cannery and tag plant. These industries operated from their origins in different ways, but with the same profit-driven motivation. While the automobile license (tag) plant is a government monopoly, such that by law it has no competition, the cannery always participated in a highly competitive market. [3]


Cañon City Canneries

Cañon City, situated in a fruit, vegetable, and meat-producing region, has a long history of canneries. Due to the Great Depression and other twentieth-century market forces, these companies—as well as the prison canneries—have by now largely shut down. In 1914, a total of nine canning factories operated in the region: Cañon City Co-operative Association, Fremont County Fruit Growers Association, Round Crest Canning Company, Round Crest Fruit Company, Frank P. Smith, B.F. Rockafellow, and Thomas & Kirkton.[4] These privately-owned firms frequently contracted labor through the prison. Labor was a major expense of these companies, as for most businesses, and labor costs were reduced greatly through prison involvement.  Convict labor can be likened to slavery because prisoners themselves received little or no income; CSP was paid by private canneries for inmates’ radically underpaid services. Meanwhile prisoners’ labor was considered part of their punishment.[5]  Unpaid or underpaid prison labor raises many moral obstacles, but the prison, prison officials, and the canning industry of Cañon City effectively reaped rewards for those persons’ incarceration. Today it is still frequently argued that labor is better than idleness for criminals, but opponents of lost pay for prisoners respond that using prisoners’ work for personal gain is wrong in itself and tends to perpetuate mass incarceration. Not only does it take away offenders’ ability to economically support themselves, but it serves goals outside the public interest—aims quite different from the rehabilitation or public safety objectives for which CSP ostensibly exists.

In 1925, the prison administration recognized the profit potential in fruit and vegetable canning.  Wardens also realized that they did not want competition of middlemen, so they purchased Colorado Packing Corporation, formerly known as the Round Crest Canning Company.[6] According to the 1925 warden’s report, the factory was purchased for $40,000, more than $540,000 in 2015 dollars. While in control of this company, the prison continued to use Round Crest Canning labels.[7] The Colorado Packing Corporation was already one of the best-equipped canneries in the state, allowing for efficient production. The language of the warden’s report is that of a business: “During the past biennium, the Colorado Board of Corrections purchased from the bondholders of the Colorado Packing Corporation by contract . . . .”[8] This report makes no mention of the contribution of inmates—merely of costs, profits, and benefits to taxpayers, a pattern sustained through all analogous biennial reports of the early twentieth century.

Profit stands out in these documents as the driving force behind the prison industry, especially the cannery and tag plant. The taxpayers are “investors” in this “company.” Ignoring ethical considerations and rehabilitation alike, wardens report their success in making their institutions cost-efficient. A regional perspective, however, notes that the dangers of running a prison as a business extend past the virtual enslavement of inmates to the potential injury of local industries facing higher labor costs. Biennial reports show immense profit for CSP, with much of this money going directly back to the State of Colorado. The 1930 biennial warden’s summary shows cannery sales of $125,151.39, roughly $1.7 million adjusted to 2015 dollars.[9]

In 1934 Warden Roy Best—overturning long precedent—suggested paying the prisoners a daily wage in order to ease their reentry into society.  Accumulated wages were to be paid upon completion of an individual’s sentence.[10] While some pay represented a vast improvement from what was essential slavery, inmates still received only cents a day. This monetary reward was then used for social control of inmates. Best used labor not only as a form of punishment, but also as Foucaultian manipulation through monetary incentives.[11]  But this is the perspective of a late twentieth-century cultural historian and theorist.  Early twentieth-century Colorado public viewed the CSP cannery positively because it reduced the burden on taxpayers. What about competing canneries? The loss of prison labor for other enterprises and new competition with the prisons’ virtually free labor damaged other local firms. The 1925-26 warden’s report notes: “We believe that this department can turn out three times as much as it did last year and not compete with any of the Colorado canneries or injure other industry in the state, as there is a demand for five times as much of this product as the State is now turning out.”[12] Warden Thomas J. Tynan may or may not have believed his own report, but in either case the tactics employed by the prison were those of an enterprise driven primarily by profit. Because of the prison’s low labor costs, it was able to purchase higher quality fruits from farmers in the surrounding area, as well as preserve fruits from the orchards the prison owned.[13] In the belief—or at least representation—that demand was higher than production, the warden nonetheless made an economic mistake in the end damaging to his own institution. In a free market, if demand exceeds supply, the price of that good should increase. Industry around Cañon City may not have seemed adversely affected by the prison until the Great Depression. Then, however, other canneries had trouble staying afloat while the prison industry returned high profits, demonstrating the economic robustness of virtual slave labor.[14]


Problems with the cannery

In 1934 the Hawes-Cooper Act banned interstate trade of convict-made goods. This federal legislation passed unanimously in 1929, with delayed inception.[15] As Hawes-Cooper took effect in 1934, the canning industry in the prison began to lose money. A 1940 warden’s biennial report attributes the failure of the cannery directly to this act.[16] In view of the economic pressures, other problems at the cannery now emerged as important. Because the canning plant was located outside the walls of the penitentiary, a number of inmates found it a convenient site for escape. A newspaper from 1931 jokingly states, “Cherry canning presumably lost its lure for George Albanese, state prison trusty, about 9 o’clock Saturday morning when he made his escape.”[17] Albanese was neither the first nor the last convict to escape from the cannery. In 1948, the prison suggested moving the plant’s location, and in 1956 that it was finally relocated inside the walls of the Colorado State Penitentiary.[18]

Surprisingly, the prison continued this industry, in spite of the yearly losses.  In the late 1960’s the prison was losing around $70,000 dollars a year.[19] The prison continued operating a cannery despite yearly losses, as Warden Best explained, because the federal government gave five-year notice for changes, before the act took effect but without additional funding for the prison.[20] Framers of Fremont County, the source of many of the fruits used for canning, meanwhile depended on canning industry, and correspondingly not only did the canning plant provide an opportunity for structured convict activity, but many inmates were also employed as workers for local farms. Ironically, in 1978 the Hawes-Cooper Act of 1929, the government action that crushed the cannery’s profit, was repealed.[21]  Had this repeal come earlier, it likely would have saved the cannery, and provided a much desired boost to farmers around Fremont County.  The explanation given by Best as Hawes-Cooper was promulgated, however, reflects the chronic problem of state underfunding of corrections facilities, leaving the prisons responsible for their own survival and their wardens acting ambivalently on their own, their employees’ and their charges’ behalf.


Beginning of the tag plant

While the prison cannery eventually succumbed to the Hawes-Cooper Act, another prison industry was and is mostly unaffected by interstate trade restriction. From the start, the tag plant produced road signs as well as every single license plate in Colorado.[22] Production of items for in-state use allowed the tag plant to remain profitable despite legislative protectionism for the non-prison canning industry. The first tag plant structure, built in 1926, was burned down by inmates during the 1929 riot. It was rebuilt in 1932. The tag plant provided road signs for other states.[23] It was and is the prison’s largest source of income.  Sales for license plates alone were $155,014.61 in 1940 and over $2.6 million in 2015.[24]

License plates, however, are a continuing example of instrumental use of prisoners. Not only does the money produced by the plates finance the prison, but also these items cost less than they would if otherwise produced because of low prison labor costs. Is it acceptable to use prisoners for society’s benefit? Of course, that “society” does not currently include the inmates whom it so manipulates. Someone has to produce license plates, but in a free market the presence of a minimum wage would drive up prices for license plates. The taxpayers of Colorado and other states imitating the Colorado tag production model must be willing to pay more for license plates as well as increase funding for state prisons if we wish to better conditions and lower recidivism.

The process for creating plates has not changed in many years. Long sheets of aluminum with different plate patterns are sent through a press, which cuts the plates into “blanks.” Blanks are essentially license plates without numbers or a coating. An inmate then takes these plates and presses the numbers onto them using a hydraulic press. The plates are laminated in a protective coating. The protective coating is dried in an oven before the final color is added. The plates are inspected throughout the process to ensure quality. This entire process could be automated, but it is important to the prison that prisoners are employed. Even physically disabled employees are hired by the tag plant. In a small room behind the plant, they do paperwork for the Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles.[25]


The tag plant today

Currently the tag plant employs around seventy-fine inmates. These offenders receive on average of sixty cents a day, along with a monthly bonus of $100.[26] Outside the institution of prison a wage of sixty cents a day for manual labor would be absurd. For prisoners, however, the tag plant is one of the better-paying prison jobs. Income garnered there can lessen the burden on the inmate’s family. One recent inmate says gratefully that he used his money to buy a television and toiletries. He goes as far as calling the tag plant “the premier job in the facility.”[27]  Employment at the tag plant indeed gives the prisoners some daily activity and work experience using a hydraulic press but, as mass incarceration activist Michelle Alexander writes, employers are not looking for felons.[28]  “Work experience” at the tag plant means little to employers evaluating ex-convicts’ application for work.

The United States established a minimum wage in 1938 to protect the lower class from absolute poverty. Prisoners, having transgressed social and legal boundaries, are no longer protected by these wage laws.[29]  But their situation affects all of us. If we allow prisons to pay workers sixty cents a day so that we can save a few dollars on a license plate, why would prison administration not accommodate? Alexander suggests that the treatment of our lowest class reflects our values as a society, pointing out that it does not matter how prisoners feel about low wages because they cannot effect change.  They cannot vote.[30]

The tag plant has been the source of controversy in the past. Several 1980 newspapers asserted that an audit of the prison industry showed the tag plant was inefficient and did not provide inmates with the forty hours of labor the prison claimed. The state legislature then attempted to remove the prison’s monopoly on the production process, arguing that it was inefficient and in respect to quality.[31] In the prison’s defense, industry director Ed Fox argued that prisoners were not skilled workers, and that the point of employing inmates was rehabilitation, not profit.[32] Fox made an important point: in a paradigm for prison economic activity broader than profit-making, prison industry should be focused on rehabilitation, not economic gain. Since the tag plant was the most profitable industry in the prison, Fox was nonetheless incentivized to protect it.

Whether or not the tag plant actually supports offenders’ rehabilitation is dubious. They are unlikely to find analogous work in which their knowledge of a hydraulic press will be useful.  This work inside the plant is also dangerous. Fingers are sometimes sliced off in an instant as workers feed blanks into the press. Warning signs line the press, reminding inmates to be careful when operating the machinery, but mistakes happen easily in this monotonous activity.[33]  Nonetheless the tag plant has proved more valuable economically than the cannery, which more realistically opened the possibility of post-incarceration employment.  The tag plant, contrastingly, prepared inmates only for return to CSP or similar work at a prison in another state.

Transparently, Colorado State Penitentiary’s principal industrial enterprises, the cannery and tag plant, have been run for profit rather than rehabilitation. The language of wardens’ reports consistently emphasizes that the profitability of these industries has been more important than their rehabilitative effects. Study of the history of Colorado’s prison industry compels us to ask how prison industry should be run. Were funds inadequate, industrial production in prisons here as elsewhere might honestly set rehabilitation first, but to effect that reform public officials and voters alike must be willing to increase their support of prisons as places of reform and prisoners as human being rather than sources of income.



[1] Originally researched and drafted by Christopher Morgan.

[2] Ruth M. Stinemeyer, “A History of the Colorado State Penitentiary,” M.A. thesis, Colorado State College of Education (1942), 111.

[3] Bill Gagnon, “Audit Criticizes Pen Industries”, fragment, Star-Journal, 1980, Museum of Colorado Prisons.

[4] “Canning Companies Once Played Vital Role in Area,” undated fragment, Museum of Colorado Prisons.

[5] Stinemeyer, 130.

[6] Mary B. Helm, typescript, 1991, Royal Gorge Regional Museum (hereafter RGRM), “Prison Industries-Canning” folder.

[7] Ibid.

[8] State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1927-28, 20.

[9] Ibid., 16.

[10] State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1933-34, 5.

[11] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans Alan Sheridan (New York: Random House, 1977), 149.

[12] State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1925-26, 10.

[13] Ibid.

[14] State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1931-32, 8.

[15] J. A. C. Grant, “Interstate Traffic in Convict-Made Goods,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 28 (1938): 854,

[16] State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1939-40, 5-6.

[17] “Convict Makes Getaway from Canning Plant,” Cañon City Daily Record, July 11, 1931.

[18] “Canning Companies Once Played Vital Role,” unattributed fragment, undated, RGRM, “Prison Industries-Canning” folder.

[19] Unattributed fragment, undated, RGRM, “Prison Industries-Canning” folder.

[20] State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1933-34, 23; see also Elinor Myers McGinn, At Hard Labor: Inmate Labor at the Colorado State Penitentiary, 1871-1940 (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), esp. 90-95.

[21] Charles Fields, “Hawes-Cooper Act 1929,” in Encyclopedia of Prisons and Correctional Facilities, ed. Mary Bosworth (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2005), 395-98.

[22] Andrea Brown, “Colorado Inmates: Making License Plates since 1926,” Colorado Springs Gazette, March 5, 2006.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Biennial Report. . .1939-40, 23.

[25] Brown.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (New York: The New Press, 2010), 102.

[29] Blake McKelvey, “Prison Labor Problem: 1875-1900,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 25 (1934): 259.

[30] Alexander, 94.

[31] Frank Hoag Jr., “Prison Industries Due for a Major Overhaul,” Pueblo Chieftain, undated 1980, RGRM, “Prison Industries” folder.

[32] “Industry Is Fighting for More than Its Life,” Daily Record, December 17, 1980.

[33] Andrea Brown, “Colorado Inmates: Making License Plates since 1926,” Colorado Springs Gazette, March 5, 2006.