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for people who care about the West

Field Day

Inmates fill in for immigrant farm workers

 

ECKERT, COLORADO

Sixty acres of peaches are ripening up on Antelope Hill Fruit Farm, row after row of trees loaded with fuzzy, sunset-colored fruit. The pickers work quickly, tattooed arms reaching toward high branches, calloused hands carefully plac"ing the fruit in their shoulder bags. Occasionally one of the men makes a short comment, or cracks a ragged smile.

Waylon Majeski -- his head shaved, beard neatly trimmed, wearing a crisp white T-shirt -- likes the work. "You're able to get out of the facility for the day, and you get to see the beautiful sights, and you feel to a certain degree free," he says.

Just a few steps away, a uniformed guard keeps a close eye on Majeski and the rest of the crew, making sure they don't feel too free.

Immigrant farmworkers have worked these orchards for decades, but this year, the peach-pickers are prisoners from the Delta Correctional Center, a minimum-security facility that houses 480 offenders in a stretch of scrub desert about 20 miles away. This is the third Delta County fruit crop the inmates have worked this year, as part of a state pilot program that dispatches crews into the fields and orchards.

Although a fact sheet from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency declares that "every job taken by an illegal alien is a job taken from a lawful U.S. worker," the truth is that farmers can't find enough lawful citizens to take on their seasonal work. Nor are they finding enough immigrant laborers: Fewer people are crossing over because of the crackdown on the Mexican border, not to mention the current U.S. economic slowdown. Stiffer federal penalties -- from $2,000 to $10,000 per worker -- make it riskier to hire undocumented immigrants. The H-2A guest worker program -- which requires farmers to pay for transportation from the border, housing and workers' compensation -- is not always dependable. Delta County vineyard owner Mike Heck lost his H-2A workers when they vanished into higher-paying oil and gas jobs after crossing the border. For all these reasons, frustrated Western growers are turning to inmate labor.

Prisons in Arizona, California, Washington, Utah, Montana and Idaho now deploy inmates to do agricultural work. In Idaho, prisoners have been working in the potato industry for the past eight years. Currently, 118 offenders work side by side with civilian workers in the potato fields and packing houses, according to Jim Woolf, warden at the St. Anthony work camp.

"We would really be lost without 'em," says Clayne Bloom, owner of High Country Potato in nearby Rexburg. Inmates make up 30 percent of Bloom's workforce. With immigrants and seasonal workers taking higher-paying construction jobs, "there's just no help here anymore."

In Colorado, the farmers pay $9.60 per hour per inmate. The Department of Corrections gets most of the money, but credits a portion back to the prisons. The inmates themselves get $4 a day, up from the 60 cents they earn working inside the prison, or doing work outside for the feds, the county or cities.

And farmers aren't the only ones relying on inmate labor: At least 37 states have made it legal for private corporations to contract prison labor. Starbucks, Microsoft, Boeing and Victoria's Secret have all worked with subcontractors to create their products using prison labor. The work keeps prisoners busy and helps defray the cost of their keep, says Sahra Nadiir, director of operations for the National Correctional Industries Association. Taxpayers pay an average of about $25,000 per prisoner per year.

While prison reformers see inmate labor as an extension of the chain gang, others see it as a necessary fix, especially for food producers in rough economic times. "It's a divisive issue," admits Dawn Thilmany, professor of agriculture and economics at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. "But the fact is, we do have a farm labor shortage. We need an immigration policy or a farm work policy that's more workable. Although in some ways employing inmates is not so attractive, it's a necessary condition of how things are."

Back in the orchards, Majeski -- down (as they say in prison parlance) for 17 years with just six months to go for multiple counts of armed robbery -- waxes poetic. "I'm learning to enjoy it, like the fruit of life. So it is with these peach trees; the fruit's there, but somebody has to go and pick it." Still, when Majeski considers what he'll do when he gets out, picking peaches is not high on the list. "Y'know, I'm kinda thinking about working in the oil fields. I keep hearing there's good money to be made."