The ongoing debate over illegal immigration in the U.S. is having some strange and unintended consequences in the West, where farmers facing acres of unpicked crops are replacing immigrants with inmates.
In Colorado, which last year passed some of the strictest immigration laws in the country, a new program aims to stem a severe labor shortage by using prisoners to work fields once farmed by migrant workers. In Arizona and Idaho, farmers are begging for the expansion of existing prison labor programs as states begin to target employers who hire illegal immigrants.
But both farmers and activists say such programs provide only a temporary solution to a permanent labor problem that seems ever further from resolution.
Inmates from Colorado's La Vista Correctional Facility for Women headed out to the fields in May, after state representative Dorothy Butcher (D-Pueblo) worked with five family farmers to fill crop-picking jobs almost no one had applied for. Butcher said Colorado's tightened immigration laws, passed during a special session last summer, have chased huge numbers of migrant workers from the state and left farmers wondering "what the hell to do."
Butcher answered that desperate question in February, when she told farmers that inmates accustomed to working difficult prison jobs might do well in the fields.
"Those women do tough manual labor," Butcher said. "They do construction. I figured if they could do all that they could work on farm."
Massive Labor Shortages Expected
To qualify for the program, prisoners must be at a minimum security level and have exemplary behavior – and they must volunteer. So far, 20 women have joined the program, making up two crews. Colorado Department of Corrections spokesperson Katherine Sanguinetti said the program could expand to maximum of four crews this year, a number Butcher acknowledges will provide a temporary solution for this summer but will not solve the labor shortage in the long run.
With comprehensive immigration reform again stalled in Congress and states across the nation tightening immigration laws, agricultural labor shortages will become increasingly common, according to Austin Perez of the American Farm Bureau. The agricultural workforce has decreased by 10 % over the last 5 years, Perez said, even though pay has increased by 20%.
"I think we're going to see massive labor shortages by the end of the summer," Perez said.
For now, inmate labor is helping stem the problem in Colorado, as well as in Arizona and Idaho. Although Arizona and Idaho's inmate labor programs are well-established, they are under new pressure to expand.
The Arizona Department of Corrections is currently conducting a system-wide review to determine the maximum number of inmates eligible and available for labor programs, said Arizona Correctional Industries officer Richard Selapack, and Idaho corrections officials have seen a marked increase in requests for workers, according to Department of Corrections Director Brett Reinke.
"As the need presents itself — and there definitely is a need in Idaho — we would like to be able to set up facilities to transition inmates into this workforce," Reinke said.
But even if inmate labor can ease farmers' troubles, programs such as Butcher's face criticism from both prisoner and immigrant rights groups. Butcher said that when her plan became public, a variety of student and other activist groups decried it as a return to chain gangs and slavery. Several activists offered to work in place of the inmates, Butcher said, and two people actually showed up. After one day in the fields, she said, they never came back.
Egg farmer Clint Hickman, who has used inmate labor on his facilities in Arizona for 12 years, said despite the difficulty of agricultural work, the prisoners he has worked with feel validated by work release programs, not demeaned by them.
"I can tell you my guys don't feel like these things are chain gangs," Hickman said.
Part of the reason is that unlike in traditional chain gangs, prisoners are compensated for their work. Inmates working in prison laundries or cafeterias are typically paid less than a dollar an hour, but farmers employing inmate labor pay the state at least minimum wage, a portion of which goes to the prisoner for spending money, child or spousal support, victim restitution, or savings.
"Some of the guys have graduated with 20 to 30 thousand cash," Hickman said. "It gives them a great start. I've seen guys who have started their own construction companies. I've also seen guys who have had the biggest coke parties in the world and they're right back in.
Farmers in the Colorado program pay $9.60 an hour for the inmate's labor, which covers the inmate's $4 an hour take home pay as well as transportation costs and wages for one prison guard per crew.
But even if modern inmate labor programs bear little resemblance to chain gangs, they may be "dangerous quick fixes" that will actually damage the future of the agricultural workforce, according to United Farm Workers spokesperson Alisha Rosas.
"We believe that farm labor is skilled labor," Rosas said. "You can't just replace one workforce with the other."
Agricultural workers need to be properly trained, Rosas said, and many prison programs do not have time to do that. In addition, immigrants for whom agricultural work is their livelihood take their jobs much more seriously than prisoners, who can just go back to prison if they get fired, Rosas said.
"For a prisoner, with all due respect to that individual, there's a lot less at stake," Rosas said. "You cannot toy with food safety or quality when it comes to picking what feeds people."
Even though Butcher sees prisoners as an acceptable solution for now, in the long run she advocates a return to traditional agricultural workers through a possible state-run guest worker program. United Farm Workers and the American Farm Bureau also support programs that would allow an increased number of immigrants to work legally in agriculture, but some farmers aren't holding their breath for either increased inmate labor programs or guest workers plans to come to fruition.
"There's not enough qualified inmates to make too much of a dent in a nationwide problem," Hickman said. "We're starting to institute robotics. We wouldn't be spending that kind of money if we saw either inmates or civilians as the answer."