by Chad Marks
Since 1995, hundreds of Arizona prisoners have held part-time jobs at Hickman’s Family Farms near Arlington, part of an effort by the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to help them successfully reenter society after serving their sentences. But in October 2018, local residents joined with environmental activists to file a $264 million federal lawsuit alleging the egg farm operation in Arlington and nearby Tonopah produces enough ammonia and other noxious gasses to affect their health. Two other lawsuits have since been filed by prisoners who were injured on the job at the farm.
Billy Hickman, vice president of operations for the company, admitted to U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow that the egg farm produces ammonia, about 1,000 pounds per day, but said he didn’t know it was polluting the air or even where the toxic gas was going.
“It seems like a rather cavalier attitude these people have, like, we’re sorry about your problem, but we’re making all this money,” stated Stephen Brittle with Don’t Waste Arizona. “But we have environmental laws to protect people from those kind of people.”
In September 2019, a federal lawsuit was filed by prisoner Mary Stinson after she lost part of a finger during her second week on the job operating machinery at the egg farm, for which she never received proper training.
“‘Figure it out’ – that’s pretty much what they tell you,” she said.
“They don’t do a lot of training,” agreed her attorney, Joel Robbins, who added he had been contacted by “multiple inmates” describing safety violations and injuries on the job at Hickman’s.
In October 2019, prisoner Michael Gerhart filed suit in Maricopa County Superior Court against Hickman’s and the DOC, claiming that he lost the use of his left hand after it was trapped in a machine with “no safety mechanism, guard, or emergency shut-off,” for which he had received no training “on the safe and proper way to use [the] machinery.”
Gerhart, who is serving time for drug-related charges, including one year for a marijuana violation, was not taken immediately to a hospital but instead returned to ASPC Lewis. As for the severity of Stinson’s injury while working at Hickman’s, the company’s chief financial officer, Jim Manos, insisted they did not provide “an unsafe environment.”
“It’s just the job,” he said.
Manos also disputed Stinson’s claim that she was insufficiently trained, saying “she should have never been working on the auger with it moving,” since “she was told not to” in a 10-minute training session the day before her December 2018 accident.
“It should have been fresh in her mind,” Manos argued.
“On the one hand,” Robbins said, “I really want Hickman’s to be able to use prisoners and get them the opportunity to work, but they just need to pay attention to the safety.”
After Stinson filed suit over his injury, the Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) was summoned to inspect the farm, according to spokesman Trevor Lakey. But DOSH does not track injuries of prisoners who work at Hickman’s, since they are paid just $4.25 an hour and are not legally considered “employees.” Tucson attorney Stacy Scheff added the prisoners are also excluded from worker’s compensation coverage.
“The only way they can get reimbursed for their injuries is to sue civilly,” she said.
Processing over 750,000 eggs per hour, Hickman’s says it’s the largest egg producer in the southwestern United States. With over four million chickens at the industrial-size farm flapping their wings, nearby residents say they have to contend with dust, flies and a sickening stench that permeates the air. Their lawsuit contends that the operation produces ammonia and other gasses, causing nausea and respiratory difficulties – what Stinson and other prisoner workers call “the Hickman cough.” Land developers and business owners have joined the residents’ lawsuit, seeking a court ruling that the farm is a public and private nuisance.
“Hickman’s will prove it remains a good neighbor and faithful to our legal, zoning, and environmental responsibilities,” said Michael Manning, an attorney for the company.
However, federal court records show that an expert hired by Hickman’s found ammonia emissions in Tonopah and Arlington exceeded federal standards by as much as 19 times.
If the egg farm loses the suit, it claims the savings to state taxpayers from its prisoner employment program, which it estimates at more than $5 million, will be threatened. Also threatened is regular work for about 80 former prisoners, as well as the below-minimum-wage jobs of some 300 DOC prisoners, according to Arizona Correctional Industries (ACI).
The farm has its own reentry and transition manager for its prisoner program, Aaron Cheatham, who said that by giving prisoners a stable residence and employment, Hickman’s is helping to combat recidivism.
“We want to put everyone we deal with back to work,” Cheatham stated.
Hickman’s program is currently expanding to include transitory housing at the farm with the construction of 40-prisoner housing units composed of 400-square-foot studios with a full-size bed and bath, a full kitchen and a 42-inch television.
“We have to create an economic engine to help these people build a better life,” said Clint Hickman, the farm’s vice president of sales and marketing, who is also a member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.
And, of course, the company also benefits from low-cost prisoner labor.
Sources: phoenixnewtimes.com, azpbs.org, azcentral.com, glendalestar.com, fox10phoenix.com
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login