Dec 16, 2011
Prison labor works for Colorado growers

With talk of farm-labor shortages across the country, can prisoners fill in the gap?

Earlier this year, officials in Georgia and Alabama suggested using prison labor to replace missing migrant workers, but in Georgia at least, that hasn’t happened. There was a pilot program last spring using workers who were on probation, but that was about it, said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association.

Prison labor has worked in Colorado, however, especially for Joey Pisciotta, owner of Pisciotta Farms and Produce Marketing in Avondale. Pisciotta grows onions, watermelons, pumpkins and some commodity crops.

Colorado toughened its immigration laws around 2005, and a lot of Pisciotta’s migrant workers told him they wouldn’t be coming back. That’s when a state representative approached him about using prisoners as workers. Pisciotta was skeptical, but he needed workers and thought it was worth a try.

He used a crew of female offenders to weed onions the next season, and was pleasantly surprised. They did a good job. Other than his four full-time employees, prison workers are all he uses now.

The offenders come from La Vista Correctional Facility, about 12 miles away. It’s a facility for women, and all the work crews are made up of women. The prison drives them over every day Pisciotta needs them, and they do everything from weeding to watermelon transplanting, picking pumpkins and packing onions in the warehouse. They work in crews of 10 or 12, he said.

Most of the offenders are in the last few months of their sentences. Their crimes are mostly drug- or burglary-related – no violent or sexual offenders are used. Unarmed guards supervise them, but there’s never been a discipline problem in the few years Pisciotta has been participating in the program, he said.

The farm-labor program is a “win-win,” since it gives inmates valuable work skills and helps farmers harvest their crops. About 100 female inmates participate, all minimum-security risks who’ve distinguished themselves with good behavior, said Katherine Sanguinetti, director of public relations for the Colorado Department of Corrections.

Many of the offenders have never worked before, so there is a training period. Most of them turn out to be good workers, Pisciotta said.

“They care about the job they’re doing,” he said. “They’d rather be out here than sitting in a cell all day.”

He listed other advantages of using prison workers.
The bookkeeping end is “unbelievable,” he said. Pisciotta doesn’t have to pay workers’ compensation insurance for 60 employees anymore, just for his four full-time workers. The corrections department bills him once a month, so he doesn’t have to do payroll every week. He doesn’t have to worry about child support, either. The prison transports the offenders every day and supplies them with food, water and farming tools.

Consistency is another advantage of the program. Pisciotta knows he’ll get 10 or so good workers every day he needs them, workers who won’t show up sick or hung over.

The guards are helpful, too. If an inmate driving a forklift, for example, needs a bathroom break, a guard who’s been doing this for some time will take over while she’s gone. It’s almost like having another foreman. The guards also help train the offenders to do farm work, he said.

Pisciotta pays the prison workers $9.60 an hour, most of which goes to the Colorado Department of Corrections (the prisoners end up getting about $4 per day), he said.
The only drawback is that sometimes an experienced inmate might have an appointment or class at the correctional facility that takes precedence over the farm work, he said. And of course, experienced workers get released eventually.

Pisciotta was one of the first farmers in his area to take advantage of prison labor, but now lots of farms are doing it.

At least 10 growers use the offender program, but that number is expanding. The program also will expand to include male offenders, Sanguinetti said.

In Washington state, 105 offender workers helped pick apples at an orchard in Quincy, Wash., in late October and November. The workers picked 1,217 bins of apples in six days – apples that otherwise would have been wasted, said Lyle Morse, director of correctional industries for the Washington Department of Corrections.

The department employs about 1,600 offender workers, but most of them are used to fight fires. The orchard work was probably a one-time thing, in response to an unusual labor shortage, Morse said.

By Matt Milkovich, Managing Editor

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