US farmers using prison labor
With tightening restrictions on migrant workers, some farmers are turning to the incarcerated.
Near this dusty town in southeastern Arizona, Manuel Reyna pitches watermelons into the back of a trailer hitched to a tractor. His father was a migrant farm worker, but growing up, Mr. Reyna never saw himself following his father's footsteps. Now, as an inmate at the Picacho Prison Unit here, Reyna works under the blazing desert sun alongside Mexican farmers the way his father did.Skip to next paragraph
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"My dad tried to keep me out of trouble," he says, wearing a bandanna to keep the sweat out of his eyes. "But I always got back into the easy money, because it was faster and a lot more money." He's serving a 6-1/2 year sentence for possession and sale of rock cocaine.
As states increasingly crack down on hiring undocumented workers, western farmers are looking at inmates to harvest their fields. Colorado started sending female inmates to harvest onions, corn, and melons this summer. Iowa is considering a similar program. In Arizona, inmates have been working for private agriculture businesses for almost 20 years. But with legislation signed this summer that would fine employers for knowingly hiring undocumented workers, more farmers are turning to the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) for help.
"We are contacted almost daily by different companies needing labor," says Bruce Farely, manager of the business development unit of Arizona Correctional Industries (ACI). ACI is a state labor program that holds contracts with government and private companies. "Maybe it was labor that was undocumented before, and they don't want to take the risk anymore because of possible consequences, so they are looking to inmate labor as a possible alternative."
Reyna and about 20 other low-risk, nonviolent offenders work at LBJ Farm, a family-owned watermelon farm, as part of ADC's mission to employ every inmate, either behind prison walls or in outside companies. The idea is to help inmates develop job skills and save money for their release. "It helps them really pay their debt back to the folks who have been harmed in society, as well as make adequate preparation for their release back onto the streets." says ADC director Dora Schriro.
If it weren't for a steady flow of inmates year-round, says Jack Dixon, owner of LBJ, one of the largest watermelon farms in the western US, he'd have sold out long ago. Even so, last year 400 acres of his watermelons rotted on the ground – a $640,000 loss – because there weren't enough harvesters. Mr. Dixon had applied for 60 H2-A guest worker visas, but only 14 were approved because of previous visa violations.
"We are in desperate need for hand labor," says Dixon, who started working on the farm when he was 9, alongside mostly migrant workers. "It's hard to get migrant workers up here anymore, with all the laws preventing them. It's not what it used to be," Dixon says. "It's dangerous for them with all the coyote wars and smuggling."
Other farmers wonder if inmates could be their solution. Dixon has received calls from a yellow-squash farmer in Texas inquiring about how to set up an inmate labor contract as well as from another watermelon farmer in Colorado seeking advice on how to manage inmate crews.
For labor-rights activists, federal immigration reform is the only viable solution to worker shortages.