Prisoners to Work Colorado Fields

Phil Prutch of Vineland, Colo., talks about using prisoners on his truck farm in place of migrant workers. Some farmers blame the state's crackdown on illegal immigration for the likely shortage this season.
Phil Prutch of Vineland, Colo., talks about using prisoners on his truck farm in place of migrant workers. Some farmers blame the state's crackdown on illegal immigration for the likely shortage this season. (By David Zalubowski -- Associated Press)

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By Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 10, 2007

Ever since Colorado passed tough immigration laws last year, farmers have worried that the immigrant laborers they depend on to plant and harvest their crops will not show up in the fields this season. So, a state legislator has proposed a novel idea: Send in the prisoners.

In a pilot program officials hope to roll out before the May planting season, minimum-security prison inmates will work five farms in southeastern Colorado to fill in for migrant workers. The inmates will earn the state's standard prison pay of 60 cents per day.

Critics from every side of the immigration debate have called Colorado's plan a deeply flawed stopgap solution to the chronic labor shortage, which afflicts agriculture from New York's apple orchards to Oregon's Christmas tree farms.

"One generation ago here in Oregon, the crops were picked by high school kids," said Gordon Lafer, associate professor of political science and labor studies at the University of Oregon. Now, he said, the inmate program tells workers, "for all those industries that couldn't move to Mexico or China, we're going to bring those conditions to you."

"The basic problem is that the pay is so low that it's difficult for people to accept those jobs," said Charles Tafoya, executive director of Rocky Mountain Service, Employment, Redevelopment, a job training agency in Denver. "If farm work paid a livable wage like any other industry, they wouldn't have that problem."

Those who want to restrict immigration tend to agree that farm wages are too low.

"Like illegal immigration, using inmate labor is simply forestalling or preventing the ultimate solution to this problem, which is, a) to let wages and benefits rise, and, b) at the same time, to mechanize," said Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports more restrictions on immigration.

"If the goal of illegal immigration is to allow a tiny number of undercapitalized farms to continue to eke out a living for another few years, then boy, that's a strange national policy," he added.

The inmate program has precedents. In Arizona, about 60 prisoners worked in watermelon fields last year, filling in for migrant workers. Iowa legislators have expressed interest in copying Colorado's program.

Colorado's plan calls for supervised teams to plant, weed and harvest on farms in Pueblo County. Farmers will contract with the state for the labor, paying the cost of transportation and guards.

State Rep. Dorothy Butcher (D-Pueblo) is the architect of the prisoner program. She also voted for Colorado's new immigration laws, which require residents to prove they are in the country legally to receive benefits such as in-state tuition or business licenses. "A lot of [immigrants] have felt threatened, and aren't coming," Butcher said. "We can't let the agriculture business just dry up."

About 78 percent of the nation's 1.8 million agricultural workers are immigrants, according to Department of Labor statistics. The majority are in the country illegally.


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