Gardens and Hatcheries

Courtesy of Denver Public Library - Western History Museum
Courtesy of Denver Public Library – Western History Museum

For more than a century, inmates at the Cañon City prisons have maintained the prisons’ gardens and ranches.[1] Agricultural and other physical labor by inmates has been central to prison activities and important as expression of the goals of incarceration since the inception of original territorial facility in 1871. The work done by inmates has built the prison facilities and, in large part, the town of Cañon, framing their current architectural character and municipal layout.  For the first quarter century of the prison’s operation, inmates worked on building highways and mining in the surrounding quarries. The stone extracted from the quarries by inmates was used to erect some of the walls and cell houses standing.  Then, at the turn of the twentieth century, the agricultural industry of the prison began to develop strongly. After only a decade, the farming industry at the prison surpassed both road building and mining in revenue for the prison. Agriculture flourished for many years in one form or another, but controversy surrounding the agricultural inmate labor flourished alongside it.

The story of agriculture in Cañon City prisons begins in 1902, when the first official farm yield was recorded in that year’s warden’s report. Small-scale farming in kitchen gardens had existed since establishment of the territorial facility in 1871, but in 1902 agriculture began to be practiced on a for-profit scale. For the first decade, the agricultural business of the prison was puny compared to the mining of quarries, generating $34,159 and only 14.7% of the total $231,668 brought in between 1902 and 1910.[2] The prison farmed primarily on small plots of leased land and existing gardens over the first decade of the twentieth century simply because minimal investment fueled prison economic productivity generally.


Farming as rehabilitation

After 1911, however, the influence of prominent penologist H.R. Cooley changed the character of labor in prisons nationally—and locally in Cañon City.[3] Cooley argued that farm labor was an appropriate means of rehabilitation for inmates around the country. He backed up his argument with the example of a prison in Cleveland.  This Ohio facility had 2000 acres of farmland worked by nearly 5000 inmates over a four-year period. Cooley described a scene from this farm: “As one sees these men in the open, sunny fields, many of them without guards, doing faithfully their daily tasks under normal conditions, it is difficult to realize that a few years ago they would have toiled inside crowded, gloomy prisons with heavily barred window. . . .The institution impresses you as a training-school with a helpful, hopeful attitude toward life.”[4]

Cooley thus claimed that the inmates had learned vital skills and were doing their work under no supervision and on their own accord. This description makes the inmates seem fully prepared to assimilate into society, characterizing agricultural industry as optimal rehabilitation for prisoners. Troublingly, however, Cooley’s primary argument was fundamentally economic. He offered statistics on how nearly double the amount of the national budget was spent on detection and punishment of crime than on education, charity, and religion combined.[5] At this early twentieth-century moment, CSP already used manual labor (quarry and highway work) as a form of rehabilitation, but after Cooley’s influential article an extra emphasis was put on agriculture by Colorado incarceration facilities’ management.

Whether the prison officials were convinced by the rehabilitative argument made by Cooley or by his more practical economic argument, CSP began in the aftermath of general acceptance of his views by an increasingly scientifically-minded criminological community across the U.S. to emphasize work as both an economic resource and preparation for prisoners’ reentry.  Since the farmers for the prison were inmates, they were often paid a few cents for a day’s labor—or entirely unpaid. Low prisoner wages allowed for lower overhead for the prison relative to the cost of running free local farms.  The prison system soon began taking full advantage of agricultural opportunity in Fremont County. Between 1912 and 1920 prison farms brought in $182,019, sixty-nine percent of the $263,646 gross income in that decade, a huge jump in earnings from the previous ten years.[6] This nearly two hundred thousand-dollar income, moreover, did not include the food produced by the prison farms that made the facilities self-sufficient. Two wider historical factors drove the boom in prison agricultural revenue. One was that World War I created a high demand for preserved foods and the second was that Cañon City prison farms were able to capitalize on that demand. A further contributing factor was that the prison administration began pushing for funds to bolster the prison agricultural industry. In the 1916 warden’s report, a sum of $250,000 was requested for expansion of the prison farms, enhancing the possibility of further revenue.[7]

In the early twentieth century the prison was already overcrowded. The 1909-1910 warden’s report addressed an entire section to extreme overpopulation.[8] It noted that CSP’s three cell houses were more than full, with many prisoners double-bunking in cells intended for one. The report called for funds to make the prison’s ranches permanent residential facilities so that inmates working there would no longer need to go back to the penitentiary at night, so alleviating cell block crowding.[9] Inmate work at the prison gardens and ranches potentially freed up much-needed space in the cell houses, because they often slept there for months at a time. At the prison’s Avondale farm, a bunkhouse was then built, housing128 low-level security prisoners.[10]

Cañon City locals were concerned that prisoners living in bunkhouses outside of prison walls and minimally supervised might easily escape, but in 1910 Warden Colley’s report cited many benefits of the farm system, including an extremely low rate of escape for inmates employed at the farm. A report section titled “Saving in Manhood” stated that the rate of escapes at the ranches was in fact lower than that of inmates at Colorado State Penitentiary proper.[11] Each early twentieth-century warden’s report, however, includes a list of escapes and the sites from which those escapes occurred. In the period between 1932 and 1934, there were reportedly fifty-two escapes. Of those events, only six happened from within the walls of CSP; the other forty-eight happened either at prison ranches or prison gardens.[12] Perhaps Cooley had meant to say that, given the ease of escape from these outlying loci of incarceration, escape happened less frequently than it could have, and that the work there engaged prisoners so that they were not as motivated to leave as often as possibility provided. Evidently the prison administration was comfortable with these escapes and potential danger to the surrounding citizens as long as the industry was still bringing in the majority of the prison’s revenue.


Convict compensation

Reliance on profits from the prison farms brought to the Cañon City facilities led to exploitation of prisoners. Inmates repaying their debt to society during their time at prison received negligible pay. A prison fieldworker in the thirties made between twenty-five cents and one dollar a day. This extremely below-market pay scale was doubly harmful. Such wages were insufficient to provide inmates with enough funds for successful reentry into society, but at the same time they damaged surrounding farmers and local business owners. The prison’s minimal labor costs allowed it to sell its produce for less than did competing businesses paying their workers a fair wage. Low inmate wages thus undermined American enterprise, in the view of competing farmers. Yet opinions about the place of under-market prison wages in the regional and national economy, even today, still elicits mixed public response.  For instance, Museum of Colorado Prison director Stacey Cline holds that it was ridiculous that the prison was eventually restricted in its ability to sell goods in the free market. Cline believes that other businesses should have been in the early twentieth century and should now be able to match the price of prison products, so enabling prison industries’ full participation in a competitive market.[13]

As contemporaries among early twentieth-century agricultural enterprises claimed, on the other hand, the prison was putting private industries out of business because they did not have the luxury of nearly free labor, as the prison system did. Underpaid prison labor became a compelling problem during the Great Depression when unemployment hit record-breaking heights and public pressure forced legislators to limit prisons’ market participation through the Hawes-Cooper Act of 1929, which put stringent regulations on sale of prison goods.[14] The act predicated a decline in farming profitability for the Cañon City Prison Facilities as it had in canning and ranching, but prison farms still operated to produce food for inmates.  Although Hawes-Cooper limited economic exploitation of prisoners and they now generally worked fewer hours, their wages were not meaningfully raised until many decades later, in the 1990s.[15]


Fish farming

The relatively little information in the Royal Gorge Museum and Museum of Colorado Prisons archives on agriculture among the Cañon City prisons between 1940 and present day suggests that prison agricultural industry was permanently stunted by the Hawes-Cooper Act. In the last decade of the twentieth century, however, the prison initiated another lucrative business endeavor in the agricultural sector. The Colorado Correctional Industries board bought the city of Buena Vista’s trout operation. This facility raised fish from the time that they were eggs until they were mature enough to be sold. The growth of the industry boomed with the facility, producing 200,000 trout annually, up from 65,000 in 1990.[16] When Dave Block assumed his role as overseer of prison enterprises in 1990, the Cañon City prison facility’s agricultural industry had been strictly in dairy cattle and the wild horse project conducted in collaboration with the Bureau of Land Management, but Block believed that the facility should diversify its industries and that fish would prove a good alternative to production of meat. The Cañon City facilities’ many pig barns had been unused for years and were scheduled for demolition. As the new overseer of the Correctional Industries’ greenhouse and vineyard programs, Block instead converted them to fish hatcheries.[17]

In 2001 a food species new to the American market was beginning to gain popularity. Due to its sweet flavor and lack of “fishy” taste, the tilapia was becoming one of the most in-demand fish on the market. This uptick in buyer interest in a particular product offered an opportunity to expand on the correctional facilities’ production.  As Cañon’s piggeries were converted into fish hatcheries, inmates began raising tilapia as well as trout and catfish. Tilapia proved an especially good investment because of its hardiness. In addition, this fish required little promotion because of its popularity.[18] The Colorado Corrections Industry (CCI) partnered with Quixotic, a food distributer, to sell tilapia. This company was capable of processing anywhere from 700 to 1000 pounds of tilapia daily, making four-ounce and two-ounce fillets, along with gourmet fillets stuffed with goat cheese.[19] The company then sold these products exclusively to the high-end grocery chain Whole Foods. Quixotic employed fifteen inmates with plans to expand to hire more inmates early in 2015, but Whole Foods encountered resistance from its customers about the role of prison labor in its tilapia sales.

Whole Foods has decided to end its partnership with Quixotic and ultimately with the inmates who work with the packing company. The ethical scruples of Whole Foods customers have undercut the prison’s ability to market its fish.[20] Ironically, positions at the Quixotic fish farms have been highly sought after by inmates, and another perspective might be that, while prison labor is indeed troublingly underpaid, this particular employment path has been beneficial to offenders. The prisoners who were fortunate enough to get a job at the facility were required to complete an eight-hour shift five days a week, but they could pick up other shifts if they were so inclined. Whole Foods has therefore mounted a defense of their partnership with the prison’s fish hatcheries and dairies, claiming that the program is an overall rehabilitation-oriented mission and that, if a prisoner’s room and board is taken into account, they are actually earning a minimum wage, so that fish-buyers and fish-eaters should think on that rather than resist the purchase of tilapia raised by inmates.[21]

The tilapia industry has been so lucrative for the prison facility that plans were made to expand the operation to produce more species of fish. The Cañon City Prison Facility has expanded its fish hatchery to include shrimp. The facility ran a test batch of 30,000 shrimp in 2009 in the expectation that within six to eight months the shrimp would be mature enough to sell. Since the facility only uses salt and feed on the shrimp, they might be considered organic, so that Whole Foods might begin purchasing the shrimp alongside the tilapia already in production. Shrimp raising has not proved successful, however, in part because of the complex of issues regarding Whole Foods’ customer complaints, despite lively inmate interest. One offender working in shrimp production noted to The Pueblo Chieftain that it was interesting to watch the shrimp start out so small and to grow them to an edible size, implying strong investment in the operation.[22]

The benefits of the fish hatcheries are thus not strictly economic. The jobs at the hatcheries are some of the most sought after in the prison because they allow the inmate to get some time outside of his cell. Learning how the complicated systems of waterways work also offers inmates skills potentially marketable upon reentry. Unfortunately, these long-term rehabilitative benefits are not prioritized by Colorado Correctional Industries.  CCI claims to take into account both economics and prisoner rehabilitation when investigating new business ideas, but decisions about inmate employment depend principally on whether or not the business venture is making any money.[23] This prioritization of profit is troubling because it means that the prison facilities place a higher value on saving the taxpayers money than on the main purpose of the penal institution, rehabilitation. Ultimately, if rehabilitation is not the top priority for prisons, recidivism rates will be higher. If inmates are released and then swept back into prisons throughout the U.S. because they lack the skills to get a job after their release, repeat offenders will cost taxpayers exponentially more than if the CCI were to continue to underwrite rehabilitative programs.

In theory, prison labor is a vehicle toward social reentry for prisoners, but for more than a hundred years at Cañon City rehabilitation has not proved the most valued aspect of prison labor. The work done by inmates has been at once a source of revenue for the prison and at the same time a problem for private businesses striving to compete with the prices driven down by prison workers’ low pay scale. When an industry no longer brings in profit to the prison, it is eliminated even if it provided benefits to the prisoners. Prison gardens and ranches are a conspicuous example. These enterprises allowed prisoners to spend time outdoors before their release, allowing for a smoother transition into society, but after the Hawes-Cooper Act, gardening and ranching in Cañon City incarceration facilities was scaled back significantly, despite the rehabilitative effects they offered. Prison labor presents a façade of rehabilitation, but it is only rehabilitative when convenient for the prison’s financial state.

[1] Originally researched and drafted by Carter Eng.

[2] Elinor Myers McGinn, At Hard Labor: Inmate Labor at the Colorado State Penitentiary, 1871-1940 (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), 132.

[3] H.R. Cooley,Outdoor Treatment of Crime, in Prison Reform, ed. Corinne Bacon (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1916), 248.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 246.

[6] McGinn, 132.

[7] State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1915-16, 10.

[8] State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1909-10, 22.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Biennial Report. . .1909-10, 10.

[12] State of Colorado, Board of Corrections, Biennial Report. . .1933-34, 40.


[13] Conversation with Stacey Cline, Director, Museum of Colorado Prisons, October 29, 2015.

[14] McGinn, 90.

[15] Cline.

[16] “Hooked: Prison Trout Farm Growing,” Pueblo Chieftain, April 25, 2010.

[17] Tracy Harmon, “Prison Fish Farm Nets a Few Bucks,” Pueblo Chieftain, August 12, 2003.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Tracy Harmon, “Starting to Bite: Whole Foods Supplier Teams with Prison Fish Farm, Pueblo Chieftain, January 26, 2013.

[20] “Whole Foods to Drop Products Made by Inmates in Prison Labor Program,NBC News, October 1, 2015.

[21] Susanna Kim, “Whole Foods Suppliers Defend Using Prison Labor,ABC News, October 5, 2015.

[22] Tracy Harmon, “Inmates Try Hand at Shrimp Farm,” Pueblo Chieftain, October 8, 2009.

[23] Roger Fillion, “Abbey Winery Uses Prison Grapes,” Rocky Mountain News, April 23, 2006.