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The Associated Press has published an extensive investigative story about how many of America's most popular and successful food brands are benefitting from what essentially is slave labor under a different name.

An excerpt:

"Intricate, invisible webs … link some of the world’s largest food companies and most popular brands to jobs performed by U.S. prisoners nationwide, according to a sweeping two-year AP investigation into prison labor that tied hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of agricultural products to goods sold on the open market.

"They are among America’s most vulnerable laborers. If they refuse to work, some can jeopardize their chances of parole or face punishment like being sent to solitary confinement. They also are often excluded from protections guaranteed to almost all other full-time workers, even when they are seriously injured or killed on the job.

'The goods these prisoners produce wind up in the supply chains of a dizzying array of products found in most American kitchens, from Frosted Flakes cereal and Ball Park hot dogs to Gold Medal flour, Coca-Cola and Riceland rice. They are on the shelves of virtually every supermarket in the country, including Kroger, Target, Aldi and Whole Foods. And some goods are exported, including to countries that have had products blocked from entering the U.S. for using forced or prison labor.

"Many of the companies buying directly from prisons are violating their own policies against the use of such labor. But it’s completely legal, dating back largely to the need for labor to help rebuild the South’s shattered economy after the Civil War. Enshrined in the Constitution by the 13th Amendment, slavery and involuntary servitude are banned – except as punishment for a crime."

Some prisoners, the AP writes, "work on the same plantation soil where slaves harvested cotton, tobacco and sugarcane more than 150 years ago, with some present-day images looking eerily similar to the past. In Louisiana, which has one of the country’s highest incarceration rates, men working on the 'farm line' still stoop over crops stretching far into the distance."

The AP reports that there are about two million people locked up in US prisons, and that "U.S. prison labor from all sectors has morphed into a multibillion-dollar empire, extending far beyond the classic images of prisoners stamping license plates, working on road crews or battling wildfires."

The AP points out that "corrections officials and other proponents note that not all work is forced and that prison jobs save taxpayers money. For example, in some cases, the food produced is served in prison kitchens or donated to those in need outside. They also say workers are learning skills that can be used when they’re released and given a sense of purpose, which could help ward off repeat offenses. In some places, it allows prisoners to also shave time off their sentences. And the jobs provide a way to repay a debt to society, they say.

"While most critics don’t believe all jobs should be eliminated, they say incarcerated people should be paid fairly, treated humanely and that all work should be voluntary. Some note that even when people get specialized training, like firefighting, their criminal records can make it almost impossible to get hired on the outside."

You can read the entire story here.