When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Hickman’s had a problem. The massive egg farm in Arizona relied on the wildly undercompensated labor of incarcerated people. How would it operate during the looming lockdown? The solution, engineered by Hickman’s and the Arizona penal system, was a prison labor camp:
Hickman’s remained the only private company in Arizona allowed to use incarcerated workers on its own turf. Two national experts in prison labor who spoke with Cosmopolitan — Corene Kendrick and Jennifer Turner, both with the American Civil Liberties Union — could cite no other instance of a state corrections department detaining people on-site at a U.S. corporation for the corporation’s express use.
Within days of the plan’s approval, a roughly 6,000-square-foot metal-sided warehouse on the Hickman’s lot at 6515 S Jackrabbit Trail in Buckeye, Arizona, had been repurposed from an apparent vehicle hangar into a bare-bones “dormitory.” It sat in plain sight, about 200 feet back from the road, near the Hickman’s corporate headquarters and retail store, where an electric signboard and giant 3D chicken beckon customers in for “local & fresh” eggs. Over the next 14 and a half months, some 300 women total would cycle through this prison outpost, their waking lives largely devoted to maintaining the farm’s operations while the pandemic raged.
Eleven of these women — all incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, which one could argue is beside the point — shared their firsthand accounts with Cosmopolitan. Our nearly yearlong investigation also turned up thousands of pages of internal ADCRR emails, incident reports, and other documents exposing a hastily launched labor experiment for which women were explicitly chosen. Housed in conditions described by many as hideous, the women performed dangerous work at base hourly wages as low as $4.25, working on skeleton crews decimated in part by COVID. At least one suffered an injury that left her permanently disfigured. These are their stories.