An AP investigation finds that U.S. prison labor is tied to some of the world’s most popular food brands, made by some of the world’s largest companies.
Following their history of exposing labor abuses connected to supply chains in Asia, Margie Mason and Robin McDowell started looking at how U.S. prisoners were being forced to work during the pandemic when most other Americans were being told to stay home. The reporters wondered: What else are they being made to do? And who is benefiting from it?
To understand, they decided to go back to the beginning, looking at prison labor practices after the Civil War with the passage of the 13th Amendment. They produced a podcast in collaboration with Reveal about the convict leasing period after the war, and then set their sights on following prison labor, focusing on agriculture because of its clear ties to the days of cotton, sugar cane and tobacco.
They found people still working on massive Southern penal farms that were once slave plantations. And they wanted to know where the crops harvested by prisoners were ending up. They reached out to more than 80 current and formerly incarcerated people, pored through thousands of pages of court cases and other documents and amassed information from public records requests filed in all 50 states.
Much of the data was incomplete. So they followed trucks leaving prisons with cattle bound for the open market, while also tailing prisoner transport vans to see where leased-out incarcerated workers were going. They looked at work-release programs at fast-food chains and meat processing plants, as well, quickly discovering there also were problems there, from massive paycheck deductions to a lack of protections when incarcerated workers are hurt or killed.
Editor Kristin Gazlay worked with Mason and McDowell to shape the news-breaking narrative. The cross-format presentation involved staff from across the AP. Robert Bumsted and Cody Jackson shot video that was edited by Mark Vancleave and supplied to newsrooms, posted online and incorporated into the compelling APNews.com presentation shepherded by Dario Lopez-Mills.
Contributing to that presentation were Natalie Castaneda, who made a motion graphic that showed dozens of logos of companies that have ties to prison labor and a looping video that tracked cows from a prison farm through the supply chain; Larry Fenn, who put together an interactive graphic that mapped hundreds of prisons with agricultural programs, and Marshall Ritzel, who produced a looping video with historical photos of prison labor. Lopez-Mills also contributed photos, as did Rebecca Blackwell, John Locher, Charlie Riedel and Gerald Herbert. Included in the wide-ranging offerings were a Localize It guide from Jennifer Lehman, an eight-minute audio documentary produced by Jaime Holguin that described the story and the reporting that went into it, and a robust social plan, with Sophia Eppolito overseeing the audience strategy and Alex Connor designing the social visuals.
The story received more than 563,000 page views on APNews.com and the app, more views than any other AP story during a busy week of breaking news — exceptional for an investigative story. Audience interest held for a full week. The story also succeeded in attracting new audiences to the AP, with nearly 60 percent of readers being new visitors. The story played on Page 1 of newspapers from Alaska to Florida. The Localize It guide received 100 views in the first few days by members across the country, including dozens of local TV and radio stations.
Before the story was published, Cargill, the largest privately owned company in America, confirmed to the reporters that it had been buying crops from three prisons and said it was in the process of “determining the appropriate remedial action.” After publication, the reporters immediately received more than 10 requests for media interviews, from Apple’s daily podcast to National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” MSNBC’s “The Reid Out,” with Joy Reid did a whole segment on the reporting, delving into the history of the reporters’ previous podcast as well. Legislators seeking to close the legal loophole allowing forced prison labor took note, including Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon.
For a painstaking, broad and thorough investigation that connected well-known brands in the U.S. food chain with labor from prisons in the United States, McDowell and Mason earn Best of the Week — Second Winner.