Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

The fruits of their labor

Josh Jenkins works at the Marion County Inmate Work Farm in Ocala, Florida. Photo by Hannah O. Brown, The Marjorie

By Hannah O. Brown, Becca Burton, and Lyndsey Gilpin 

Carly Berlin and Anna Hamilton contributed reporting and editing.

For at least a decade, the University of Florida has depended on the labor of incarcerated people to run their agricultural research farms. That labor has been essential to powering research on specialty and commodity crops — information that eventually lands in the hands of farmers across the state. 

Relying on prison labor has saved the university millions of dollars, and, in the past, the university emphasized that these work programs also benefited incarcerated people as skills training. But in June 2020 — at the height of protests demanding racial justice — UF announced it was ending its contracts with prisons and jails. 

While many activists and students breathed a sigh of relief, university researchers and prison officials were left scrambling to replace the essential workforce. Incarcerated people who worked the fields are caught in the middle — no longer a part of what activists call an exploitative program, but without access to the freedoms that came with a day outside on the farm. This four-part series by The Marjorie and Southerly investigates the complicated and entrenched relationship UF and some other public universities in the U.S. South have with prisons and jails. We examine the conflicting messaging from officials and experts, the severe lack of data available to assess the benefits universities and prison officials tout, and the ways in which work programs for incarcerated people could be more beneficial to them.

Read part 1: The ‘symbolism’ of slavery

Read part 2: Powered by prisons

Read part 3: A lack of data

Read part 4: ‘A greater systemic problem’

Disclaimer: Hannah O. Brown and Becca Burton are employed by the University of Florida. Their contributions to this story were completed as private citizens and not as employees, agents, or spokespeople of the university.