Prisoners to Harvest Crops in Colorado

Phil Prutch, a farmer in Avondale, Colo.

Phil Prutch, who farms in Avondale, Colo., will hire prisoners to harvest crops, because half of the migrant workers who usually work for him are not coming back. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR
The remains of pumpkins that rotted in the fields last fall for lack of migrant labor

Prutch shows the remains of pumpkins that rotted in the fields last fall for lack of migrant labor. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR

Last summer, the Colorado Legislature passed some of the toughest anti-illegal immigration laws in the country. The result? The farm workers who usually migrate into the state to tend the fields didn't come back. Now farmers, desperate for help, are turning to the Colorado Department of Corrections.

Near Pueblo, Colo., there are entire fields of dried out pumpkins that were left on the ground to rot last fall because there was no one to pick them. And it wasn't just pumpkins; chilis were left, too.

State Rep. Dorothy Butcher, a Democrat elected from the Pueblo area, said, "We have the best green chili in the United States — maybe in the Western hemisphere."

Butcher has heard plenty of complaints from farmers. She said she thought of using prisoners for harvest work while driving past the state prison complex, where one can see huge fields tended by prisoners

"As I was coming through Canon City one night — coming back from Salida – I thought to myself, 'Here's the answer. These guys know how to do farm work. So, we should get them to help the farmers,'" she said.

If black-and-white striped shirts and leg irons come to mind, it's really nothing like that. Colorado's Department of Corrections has all sorts of businesses: There's a dairy and a metal shop, and prisoners even arrange flowers for weddings. Inmates volunteer for the jobs, and they can make a couple hundred dollars a month. Typically, there are more applicants than jobs available.

In Pueblo County, the winter is over, and tractors are preparing the fields for new crops.

Phil Prutch, who farms in Avondale, Colo., said about half his workers are missing.

"For this year, I know I'm going to cut back on a lot of my produce for the simple reason — I don't know what labor's going to be available out there. And there's no sense in putting all the money in a crop [if I] can't harvest it," he said.

The consequences could be bigger than a one-year loss in revenue. Prutch said he could lose some longtime customers.

"If they can find another supplier, and he does a good job for them, they'll just stick with him, and you lose them forever," he said.

Prutch said he'll try employing inmates, but he has reservations. His regular workers know what they're doing, he said. The prisoners will require training. And he's not sure the inmates will work as efficiently, so it may end up costing more to harvest the produce than it's worth. But he doesn't have other options.

"It's not a fix to the problem," he said. "The federal government needs to, you know, get off their heinies and get something done, get this guest-work program flying."

President Bush and some members of Congress have pushed for a program that would import workers, then send them home at the end of the harvest season. But there's been no progress on that.

Arturo Rodriguez heads United Farm Workers. He says the worker shortage in Colorado is unique, and he's convinced the state's crackdown on illegal immigration is to blame.

"There's still enough workers available here in California," Rodriguez said. "And then you have the state of Arizona—same thing—there are sufficient number of workers there to pick those crops."

Rodriguez predicts Colorado's experiment with prison labor won't succeed because inmates aren't used to this kind of hard work. On top of that, he says, assuming that prisoners can replace farm workers is offensive.

"You wouldn't have inmates go work on Wall Street or work on the computers," he said. "Those people have skills they've developed, and they know how to do their work — same thing with farm workers."

But there've been only a few vocal critics of the plan. The Colorado Department of Corrections expects to have its first crew out in fields at the beginning of May.

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