Op-ed: Overthrowing the Food System’s Plantation Paradigm

The struggle for abolition remains urgent. As we seek justice for people incarcerated and indentured in agriculture, there is hope in freeing ourselves to build nourishing food systems.



“Down where we are, food is used as a political weapon.”
– Fannie Lou Hamer

As calls for abolition, defunding and disbanding police departments, and reallocating critical city resources animate the American landscape, we are facing an imminent opportunity to draw connections between people in prisons and our food system.

For some, “abolition” conjures images of a past thought gone. For those folks, images of slave patrols and plantations seem unrelated to the current wave of uprisings following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. But for others, abolition is a relevant, timely, and necessary injunction. Abolition invites a critical-historical awareness of unfreedom and a creative prescription toward the possibilities of freedom.

The coronavirus pandemic has re-cast our food workers—cashiers, delivery persons, and farmers—as essential. What of those who labor on prison farms?

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While prison labor specifically and mass incarceration more generally have been debated over the years, researchers have been slow to make either theoretical or empirical claims that link incarceration and the food system, despite the United States’ history with using enslaved and incarcerated labor to produce food. Abolitionist theory cites the plantation as both a geography and way of thinking whose logic has remained consistent, despite its changing material form. The prison is one of those forms.

Many historians have written about the development and role of the convict lease system in rebuilding the South after the Civil War. Companies and plantation owners leased prisoners to build railroads and perform agricultural labor. In Texas, for example, the convict lease system not only provided labor for companies and planters but also helped the state strengthen itself financially. When the convict lease system formally ended in 1910, the Texas penitentiary system continued its investment in agriculture, purchasing former plantations in east Texas and along the Gulf Coast. Some of those former plantations make up the 130,000 agricultural acres currently maintained and operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The coronavirus pandemic has re-cast our food workers—as essential. What of those who labor on prison farms?

On Texas prison farms in 2017, incarcerated men and women raised 30 crops that produced more than 11.7 million pounds of food; harvested 123.7 million pounds of cotton, grains, and grasses; tended chickens that produced just under 5 million eggs; canned 297,143 cases of vegetables; and processed more than 22.7 million pounds of meat. The state, in effect, operates its own miniature food system that feeds people who are incarcerated there (the Texas Department of Criminal Justice boasts about being “self-sufficient”) as well as commercial sales of food to the public.

Prison labor is not solely used to feed prison populations or to supply state agencies. In 2018, the nonprofit food justice organization Food First published an article that asked: Is Prison Labor the Future of Our Food System? The group detailed how private companies have turned to prison labor to make up for the shortage of farmworkers due to anti-immigration legislation. Across the U.S. 30,000 incarcerated people provide onions, watermelons, potatoes, and other produce for private companies to sell for public consumption.

Food First’s question does not have an inevitable answer. As a terrain of struggle, abolition is as much about building the institutions, relationships, and worlds we want to live in as it is about dismantling those we reject. And we are not building from scratch: The seeds and fragments of a more just, community-controlled food system that honors the healing potential of working the land are already present. Abolitionist theory also makes connections between how power that is concentrated in police forces and prisons flows into other parts of our lives through channels such as the food system.

A contemporary abolitionist practice must create the conditions for healthy communities. To that end, the work of nourishing people and building just food systems is necessary. Just as sure as we must end state violence in the form of police and prisons, we also must deepen our capacity to meet the needs of people and build anew. What we build cannot be yet another transformation of a system that privileges and protects private property, exploits labor, or maintains hierarchies of deservedness.

Where can we turn when we want to see abolitionism in practice? We turn to the prison strikes and uprisings that used food as a political weapon in the fight for more humane conditions. We turn to incarcerated farmers who, even as they labor under confinement, point to the revolutionary possibilities of farming itself, particularly in the context of prisons, where idleness is a threat to individual and communal well-being. We turn to the folks who built Black towns to make freedom spaces and examples of community land trusts and cooperative enterprises. We turn to food justice organizations with radical Black leadership that use food to build infrastructure for maintaining Black life rather than hastening Black death. In these examples, we see fragments and building blocks that challenge exploitation and private property while also overturning the centuries-old plantation paradigm of violence and control.

As we continue to uplift abolitionist demands, those of us also committed to land and food work must insist on building self-determining food economies and fully commit to overturning the food system’s plantation paradigm. Indeed, in the world where we defund and disband police departments, shutter prisons and penal farms, and end hyper-surveillance, we must also consider what we want to build that is essential? An abolitionist approach to food requires us to build community, grow food, and nurture people. All this must happen alongside the dismantling of plantation-prisons.

Top photo: Parchman Penal Farm. Male prisoners hoeing in a field in Mississippi. (Public domain photo by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

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View Comments (5)

  1. JT Roane
    Friday, June 19th, 2020
    Great piece.
  2. Saturday, June 20th, 2020
    "Just as sure as we must end state violence in the form of police and prisons, we also must deepen our capacity to meet the needs of people and build anew. What we build cannot be yet another transformation of a system that privileges and protects private property, exploits labor, or maintains hierarchies of deservedness."

    Thank you for this important article. As our food systems are increasingly under scrutiny right now, I can only hope that we never go back to 'normal.'
  3. Thursday, June 25th, 2020
    Very interesting article. Are you advocating for prisoners to not be assigned to work on farms growing food? To sit inside the prison instead doing nothing or maybe only an indoor job? I think that whenever possible prisoners should be given some work to do, hopefully useful work, as a way to occupy their time but also to engage their minds and bodies in physical labor. Farming seems like an excellent choice.

    Reducing the prison population - yes, I agree completely with that. People should not be in jail for carrying around small amounts of drugs.... But for those already in prison, working outdoors could be the best use of their time. Better would be an educational component on how to farm so they could have a skill to carry with them. And proper treatment of breaks, water, sunscreen, etc. must be there.

    I am a Doctoral student in Nutrition with food systems as my interest. I am picking out my dissertation topic. One of my interests is prisons/gardens/better food but had veered off that to other areas. Still, haven't been able to decide, and this topic is very interesting.

    Sarah