As states increasingly crack down on hiring undocumented workers, western farmers are looking at inmates to harvest their fields, says the Christian Science Monitor. 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. With a new law would fine employers for knowingly hiring undocumented workers, more farmers are turning to the Arizona Department of Corrections for help. “We are contacted almost daily by different companies needing labor,” says Bruce Farely of Arizona Correctional Industries.
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 Arizona corrections director Dora Schriro. Yet Marc Grossman of the United Farm Workers of America says inmate labor undermines demands by unionized farmworkers have to be paid based on skill and experience. “It’s rather insulting that the state [Arizona] would look so poorly on farm workers that they would attempt to use inmates,” Grossman says. “Agriculture does not have a reliable workforce, and the answer does not lie with prison labor,” says Paul Simonds of the Western Growers Association. “This just underscores the need for legislation to be passed to provide a legal, stable workforce.” A prison lockdown would be disastrous, he points out, with perishable crops awaiting harvest. Other crops, like asparagus and broccoli, require skilled workers.