WASHINGTON, April 30, 2014 -- Idaho is poised to become the latest testing ground for a program to allow state convicts to work on private farms during crucial growing and harvesting period. The new law was enacted as Congress seems unable to address agricultural workforce issues as part of comprehensive immigration reform.

Republican state Sen. Patti Ann Lodge introduced the legislation, aimed at preventing harvests from going to waste as a result of a growing lack of documented farm workers. Lodge said the concept of prisoners working on farms is not new, and has been tried in several states. She said Idaho has been having a problem finding eligible workers who can clear the federal government’s worker authorization system, E-Verify.  “I live in a fruit area and we can’t get pickers,” she said.

Lodge said inmates will get paid at least minimum wage, and could earn up to $15.45 an hour. The law will also help convicts develop a work ethic while aiding farmers.

The law, which was signed in March by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter (R) and takes effect in July, allows private employers to use volunteer inmate labor in the production, harvesting and processing of perishable food products. It forbids the displacement of employed workers in favor of prison labor.

Income from the work can be used to reduce or offset costs of incarceration or to satisfy court ordered restitution, fines, and other legal judgments. Earnings can also can be used to provide resources for “successful reentry” by inmates into society.

During debate in the state legislature, Lodge said one Democratic lawmaker said the practice amounted to slave labor. “This is nothing to do with being forced,” Lodge said. “Why wouldn’t someone want to get some fresh air?”

Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, said replacing undocumented farm workers with unskilled prisoners will not solve the workforce issue. Goldstein likened Idaho’s move to hiring convicts to work at convenience stores. “You have to have workers that understand the language of the customers,” he said.

“Providing prison labor to agricultural employers is not a solution to the labor relations issues in agriculture,” Goldstein said. Instead, the nation needs immigration reform “to address the fact that the majority of hardworking, productive farmworkers lack authorized immigration status and need a path to immigration status and citizenship.”

Otter spokesman Jon Hanian said the governor did not offer any statement when he signed the measure because he was signing hundreds of bills that day. He said the law is aimed at helping farmers with time-sensitive crops, but only if other labor cannot be found.

Several states have prisoners doing an array of work including cleaning highways, collecting trash, and other grunt labor. States such as Alabama, Florida, Arizona, and Washington have had variations of work-release programs for farms that met with failure or limited success.

Georgia tried a similar approach as Idaho in 2011 after undocumented workers left the state en masse due to passage of an anti-immigration bill. Reports indicated that many inmates left the job early due to the heat and work conditions, leaving crops to rot before harvest. At the time, Edward O. Dubose, the president of the NAACP Georgia State Conference, called the practice of hiring inmates to work the fields “shocking and regressive.”

However, success for the program in Idaho arguably could lead to more widespread use of inmates working farmland, especially with the lack of immigration reform and a dearth of documented workers.

Frank Muir, president and chief executive officer of the Idaho Potato Commission, said prisoners have been working on farms in southern Idaho production facilities for many years with good results. The new Idaho law basically codifies the program for the whole state, instead of just various counties allowing the practice. “It’s a win-win situation for prisoners and farmers,” Muir said. “Prisoners get an opportunity to work and get work experience. Obviously to get out of the prison is a welcome experience for them.”

Muir said the new law simply provides clarifications that prisoners cannot be used to displace current workers, but rather as “complementary” workers. “It’s been a positive experience in everything I’ve heard back from prisoners and community and the folks who employ them,” Muir said.

Ken Wright, president of the Washington Farmers Union and owner of a 300-head cattle ranch in Idaho, said the program seems “to be good in theory, but it takes a lot of manpower to match up prisoners with farmers.”

The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives noted that when similar programs were tried in other states like Georgia and Alabama “they proved to be failures.” “Such programs are in no way a substitute for immigration reform,” NCFC said.


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