Inmates replace wary migrants in Colo. fields
By DAN FROSCH The New York Times | March 04,2007
DENVER — As migrant laborers flee Colorado because of tough new immigration restrictions, worried farmers are looking to prisoners to fill their places in the fields.
In a pilot program run by the state Corrections Department, supervised teams of low-risk inmates beginning this month will be available to harvest the swaths of sweet corn, peppers and melons that sweep the southeastern portion of the state.
Under the program, which has drawn criticism from groups concerned about immigrants' rights and from others seeking changes in the criminal justice system, farmers will pay a fee to the state, and the inmates, who volunteer for the work, will be paid about 60 cents a day, corrections officials said.
Concerned about the possible shortage of field labor, Dorothy B. Butcher, a state representative from Pueblo and a supporter of the program, said, "The workers on these farms do the weeding, the harvesting, the storing, everything that comes with growing crops for the market."
"If we can't sustain our work force, we're going to be in trouble," said Butcher, a Democrat.
The program will make its debut in Pueblo County, where farmers have been hit hard by the labor shortage. Frank Sobolik, director of a Colorado State University extension program that works with farmers in Pueblo County, said he expected that about half of the 300 migrant workers employed by area farms might not return this season.
"There's a feeling, a perception that these laborers won't be back because it's safer for them to find work in other states," Sobolik said. "The farmers are really concerned. These are high value crops we're talking about here with a high labor requirement."
Last year, the Colorado General Assembly passed tough legislation that included giving local law enforcement broader powers to check immigration status and restricting access to social services for workers without proper documentation.
The Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition estimates that there are 150,000 illegal immigrants in Colorado, many of them involved in agriculture. Migrant workers typically travel here from Mexico, Texas and New Mexico for the crop season, where their labor can last from May through the late fall, before returning home to their families. But those numbers could soon be reduced drastically, as workers who are in the country illegally are unwilling to risk exposing their status.
Joe Pisciotta Jr., who owns a 700-acre produce farm in Pueblo County, said he had about 20 workers and expected to lose half of them. Pisciotta, a third-generation farmer, worried that such a reduction would undercut his ability to supply buyers with the watermelons, onions and pumpkins he grows.
"It's very frustrating," he said. "I'm definitely going to lose customers. We've never had an issue like this. With all of us trying to get enough workers on our farms, I'm worried this is going to turn into farmer against farmer."
Although chain gangs and prison farms have long been staples of American correctional culture, the concept of inmates working on private farms is unusual. But there are signs that other states are following suit. The Iowa Department of Corrections is considering a similar program because of a migrant labor shortage in that state.
Several Iowa farmers called recently to request inmates in lieu of migrant workers, said Roger Baysden, the director of the state's prison industries program. One farmer asked for as many as 200 inmates, Baysden said.
In Colorado, Butcher said she hoped that the program, which could send up to 100 inmates to Pueblo County farmers, would remedy a situation that might otherwise turn into an economic disaster.
Immigrant rights group, however, said the Colorado program was myopic.
"Many immigrants are leaving Colorado for other states that will actually embrace their contributions as good citizens and hard workers," said Julien Ross, state coordinator for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. "This exodus from Colorado has profound negative consequences on our economy and the very fabric of our society."
Ross said his group was organizing a weeklong boycott of Colorado businesses beginning March 25 to demonstrate the workers' impact on the regional economy.
A group calling for changes in sentencing, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, is also uneasy about the program. The group views the inmates' pay as problematic.
"This feels like the re-invention of the plantation," said Christie Donner, the group's executive director. "You have a captive labor force essentially working for their room and board in order to benefit the employer. This isn't a job training program. It's an exploitative program."
But Ari Zavaras, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, said the merit of a hard day's work outdoors was invaluable to an inmate.
"They won't be paid big bucks, but we're hoping this will help our inmates pick up significant and valuable job skills," Zavaras said. "We're also assisting farmers who, if they don't get help, are facing an inability to harvest their crops."
With the start of the farming season looming, Colorado's farmers are scrambling to figure out which crops to sow and in what quantity. Some are considering turning to field corn, which is mechanically harvested. And they are considering whether they want to pay for an urban inmate who could not single out a ripe watermelon or discern between a weed and an onion plant.
"This is not a cure-all," Pisciotta said. "What our farm laborers do is a skill. They're born with it, and they're good at it. It's not an easy job."