Thursday, March 1, 2007

Colorado to replace immigrant workers with prison labor

Last summer the Colorado legislature passed some of the strictest anti-immigration laws on the books. It turns out the laws have not only cost the state $2mil dollars to enforce rather than saving millions as originally intended, there is now such a shortage of farm labor due the new restrictions, the state is considering using work gangs from local prisons to bring in the crops.

Immigrant farm workers who were claimed to be driving down the wages of native workers when they worked the fields for $8.50 an hour are now to be replaced with "low security risk" prisoners who will be receiving 60cents a day to take their place according to Department of Corrections officials.

A pilot program, which will be launched this month, will have the inmates working at more than a dozen farms picking melons, onions and peppers

Crops were left to spoil in the fields after the passage of legislation that required state identification to get government services and allowed police to check suspects' immigration status.

"The reason this [program] started is to make sure the agricultural industry wouldn't go out of business," state Rep. Dorothy Butcher said. Her district includes Pueblo, near the farmland where the inmates will work.

Prisoners who are a low security risk may choose to work in the fields, earning 60 cents a day. They also are eligible for small bonuses.

The inmates will be watched by prison guards, who will be paid by the farms. The cost is subject to negotiation, but farmers say they expect to pay more for the inmate labor and its associated costs than for their traditional workers.


Farmers said they weren't happy with the solution, but their livelihoods are on the verge of collapse.

"This prison labor is not a cure for the immigration problem; it's just a Band-Aid," farmer Joe Pisciotta said.

He said he needed to be sure he would have enough workers for the harvest this fall before he planted watermelons, onions and pumpkins on his 700-acre farm in Avondale. But he's not thrilled with the idea of criminals working his fields.

"I've got young kids," he said. "It's something I've got to think about."

Pisciotta said he hoped the program highlighted what he viewed as the absurdity of Colorado's position — dependent on immigrant labor but trying to chase migrants away. He said the people leaving were not just those who entered the country illegally.
La Times

Corrections is asking the farmers to pay $9.60 an hour per prisoner to cover guards, transportation to the fields and food, Pisciotta said.

That's a bit more than the cost of minimum wage plus benefits such as workers compensation insurance, the farmer said. He's negotiating for a lower fee.

A new state law took effect Jan. 1 requiring employers to verify Social Security numbers and save proof that workers are legal. Some migrant workers have heard about the law and are choosing to work elsewhere.

Pisciotta said he started looking for alternatives after his winter onion packers said they might not be back to Colorado - fearing harassment, even if they are legal.

To enforce the new law, the state will perform random audits and fine employers $5,000 for the first offense and up to $25,000 for the second.

"If it is $25,000, can you take that chance?" Pisciotta said.

He said he checks his workers' identification papers.

"They look fine. But whether they're legit or not, I don't know," he said.
Rocky Mountain News

Advocates on both sides of the immigration debate said they were stunned by the proposal.

"If they can't get slaves from Mexico, they want them from the jails," said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which favors restrictions on immigration.

Ricardo Martinez of the Denver immigrant rights group Padres Unidos asked: "Are we going to pull in inmates to work in the service industry too? You won't have enough inmates — unless you start importing them from Texas."
LA Times

In addition to the laws requiring employers to verify worker status, Colorado passed legislation that made it harder to get a driver license and created tougher guidelines for those applying to receive all but emergency services. In addition to costing the state $2mil to enforce, the new laws have led to an exodus of Latinos, both undocumented and legal.

David Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau, whose state is also suffering from a shortage of farm labor, doesn't view the use of prisoners as farm laborers as very practical, saying, "The idea has been floated before, but these are not unskilled jobs. They're jobs that require a lot of training and supervision."

Perhaps the Colorado Legislature could just work out a deal with the Dept. of Homeland Security, The Corrections Corporation of America and Halliburton to just return all the undocumented workers they've already imprisoned and send them to the fields for 60 cents a day – while charging farmers $9.00 and change an hour

It's would mean a nice profit for the prison keepers and the farmers could get back some skilled workers …. That seems to be just the kind of plan that would appeal to the greedy corporate crowd... Dick Cheney would be so proud. Maybe they could get the same deal for service and construction workers also….America ain't it grand?

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Anonymous said...

I don't understand why they would charge. The guards ALREADY get a wage! The only thing the farmer should pay for is gasoline, the driver, and the prisoner's pay - what did you say? .60 hour? Humph! That certainly won't make the reperations payments.

How about a prison alternative who's time has come? To build a secured TOWN rather than a prison. Where the focus would be on EDUCATION instead of punishment. Check out the blog at

Pink said...

The prisoners are being paid $4.00 per day. Normally, if they work at a job in the prison, they get 60 cents a day. As far as I know they are required to work some sort of job; they were given the option of working on a farm, not forced to do so.
At least this way when they get out of prison they will have a better chance of getting a job on a farm with their experience vs. not getting a job based on their record.