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Colorado Farms Out Prisoners to Replace Immigrant Farm Workers

Colorado is renting its prisoners to local farmers to replace migrant agricultural workers - mostly Mexican and Central American - who have been scared away by the state's restrictive immigration laws.

In 2006, the Colorado legislature passed what it trumpeted as the nation's toughest immigration policies. Law enforcement officials are required to check the immigration status of arrestees. Illegal immigrants are barred from many social service programs, and strict new state ID and driver's license rules make it difficult for even legal residents to obtain IDs. The tough new laws have driven immigrant farmworkers to states with fewer restrictions.

Colorado farmers tried to hire local workers through unemployment offices and newspaper advertisements, with little success. State Representative Dorothy Butcher, remembering the old prison farms, worked to create the new Farm Worker Program, which uses state prison labor. While initially skeptical, farmers have been "pleasantly surprised at the serious motivation the inmates have shown," The Denver Post reported.

Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) spokesperson Katherine Sanguinetti told the Post that "It's a win-win situation." The farmers get captive, docile, low paid workers, the prisoners earn four dollars an hour instead of the 60 cents a day they would earn at prison jobs, and the CDOC makes a tidy profit. The farmers pay the CDOC $9.60 an hour for each prisoner, about one dollar more than they previously paid migrant farmworkers.

The CDOC initially fielded five 15-prisoner crews, each supervised by one guard. The CDOC is paid $76.80 per prisoner per 8-hour work day, which is used to cover expenses for the prisoners, the guards and transportation costs. The remainder disappears into the coffers of Colorado Correctional Industries (CCI), which, despite its exploitation of prisoners as virtual slave labor, turns a minimal profit, if any.

CDOC Executive Director Ari Zavaras said the program provides prisoners with jobs and "significant and valuable skills." CCI, of which the prisoner Farm Worker Program is a small part, has operations far beyond the stereotypical stamping of license plates. CCI prisoners build office furniture, steel prison cells, bear-proof dumpsters and 12,000 gallon fiberglass fish-farm tanks; they raise dairy cattle, goats, tilapia fish, chickens and nightcrawler worms; break wild horses; sew garments; and fight forest fires - in addition to making license plates. The principal job skill taught is simply the importance of going to work and doing what they are ordered to do for minimal pay. CCI's small profits fund a recreation and educational trust fund.

The pilot Farm Worker Program employed minimum-security female prisoners from the La Vista Correctional Facility. The women hoed and thinned fields of cabbages, onions, corn and melons. In the fall they harvested the crops. The women claimed not to mind arising at 3:30 a.m. and laboring in 100-degree heat for four dollars an hour. Prisoner Lisa Richards, however, told the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper that "it's a lot of work for what we're getting paid." In November 2007 the CDOC announced it was expanding the program to include five more farmers in Pueblo County, using male prison labor. No sex offenders will be eligible, and prisoners nearing release will be given priority.

Colorado's farmworker problem and prison labor solution is not unique.

Idaho suffers from a shortfall of agricultural workers, too. Idaho tried to use college students but abandoned that initiative and put prisoners to work. Over the past six years the state's prison farmworker program has grown from 18 to 120 prisoners. Prison guard Jim Woolf told the Idaho Statesman newspaper that there are several potato warehouses eager to work crews of 15 to 20 prisoners but "we don't have enough inmates."

The Iowa Department of Corrections is considering a similar program. Several Iowa farmers have contacted the department to request prisoner farmworkers of their own. One asked for 200 prison laborers.

The Arizona Department of Corrections has been supplying nine private farming operations with prisoner workers for years. Hickman's Egg Ranch has used prisoners for about 12 years while LBJ Farm, a watermelon operation, began using prison labor 18 years ago and currently employs 60 prisoners. The Arizona prisoners are well paid in comparison to their counterparts in Colorado. Egg farmer Clint Hickman told Allison Beatty of ABC News that "some of the guys have graduated with 20 to 30 thousand cash."

Puerto Rico has used prisoners to pick coffee beans. In 2005, 300 prisoners picked the crop. Officials had wanted to work 1,000 prisoners but transportation problems limited them to 300. The prisoners were paid the same as regular coffee bean pickers, about five dollars per 28-pound bucket, and received 10 days off their sentences for each month they worked.

Colorado's prisoner Farm Worker Program is not without its critics. Christie Donner of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition likened the program to a "reinvention of the plantation." She observed that "it is exploiting people when they are captive and ignoring their employment needs when they are released," and noted "this isn't a job training program." Alisha Rosas of the United Farm Workers union complained that the program was "treating farm labor like it is an unskilled job." Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, in a harsh rebuke of the farmworker program, said, "If they can't get slaves from Mexico they want them from the jails." 

"Agriculture does not have a reliable workforce, and the answer does not lie with prison labor," stated Paul Simonds of the Western Growers Association, a farming trade association for California and Arizona.

Nobody but CDOC bureaucrats appear happy with the program. All admit that it is not a solution to the problem, but no one seems to know how to provide farmers with cheap, disposable laborers that will arrive when needed and leave when no longer required. Illegal migrant workers fill that niche perfectly, primarily because they have few rights and no political power. Prisoners, who are a captive labor force, provide many of the same benefits to farmers.

In a very real way the prisoner Farm Worker Program constitutes a subsidy to farmers by housing workers at state expense and delivering them on demand to provide cheap field labor. Like illegal migrant workers, prisoners have few rights and no political power. It was an easy leap of the imagination to switch from one down-trodden population to another in terms of labor exploitation.

Prisoners, however, can never replace migrant workers. There simply are not enough prisoners. The CDOC boasts that it has 4,500 low-security prisoners who qualify for its Farm Worker Program, but the U.S. Labor Department and the American Farm Bureau Federation estimate there are 9,000 immigrants working on Colorado farms. The Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition estimates that 150,000 illegal immigrants reside in Colorado.

Since Colorado's prisons hold just over 21,000 prisoners, it seems doubtful that prison labor can ever replace the migrant labor that farmers need. The farm program appears to be a stalking horse intended to prompt Congress to find a real answer to the question of who will work the nation's fields.

The CDOC program demonstrates just how out-of-touch Colorado's lawmakers and prison bureaucrats are with the modern workplace. Urban youth comprise the largest portion of the prison population. There is little call for farmworkers in urban Denver, yet the Farm Worker Program is the latest "job training" project offered by Colorado's prison system.

It's no wonder that a recent survey by the Piton Foundation, released in Spring 2007, found that approximately 40 percent of Colorado parolees had difficulty finding employment. Until prison bureaucrats provide real-world job training that imparts real-world job skills, prisoners will continue to struggle to make the transition to the modern workplace following their release.

Sources: Associated Press, The Indianapolis Star, The East Valley Tribune, The Idaho Statesman, Colorado Springs Independent, The Monterey County Herald, The Denver Post, Pueblo Chieftain, New York Times, The Piton Foundation (

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