Picacho, Ariz. - Near this dusty town in southeastern Arizona, Manuel Reyna pitches watermelons into the back of a trailer hitched to a tractor. His father was a migrant farm worker, but growing up, Mr. Reyna never saw himself following his father's footsteps. Now, as an inmate at the Picacho Prison Unit here, Reyna works under the blazing desert sun alongside Mexican farmers the way his father did.
"My dad tried to keep me out of trouble," he says, wearing a bandanna to keep the sweat out of his eyes. "But I always got back into the easy money, because it was faster and a lot more money." He's serving a 6-1/2 year sentence for possession and sale of rock cocaine.
As states increasingly crack down on hiring undocumented workers, western farmers are looking at inmates to harvest their fields. Colorado started sending female inmates to harvest onions, corn, and melons this summer. Iowa is considering a similar program. In Arizona, inmates have been working for private agriculture businesses for almost 20 years. But with legislation signed this summer that would fine employers for knowingly hiring undocumented workers, more farmers are turning to the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) for help.
"We are contacted almost daily by different companies needing labor," says Bruce Farely, manager of the business development unit of Arizona Correctional Industries (ACI). ACI is a state labor program that holds contracts with government and private companies. "Maybe it was labor that was undocumented before, and they don't want to take the risk anymore because of possible consequences, so they are looking to inmate labor as a possible alternative."
Reyna and about 20 other low-risk, nonviolent offenders work at LBJ Farm, a family-owned watermelon farm, as part of ADC's mission to employ every inmate, either behind prison walls or in outside companies. The idea is to help inmates develop job skills and save money for their release. "It helps them really pay their debt back to the folks who have been harmed in society, as well as make adequate preparation for their release back onto the streets." says ADC director Dora Schriro.
If it weren't for a steady flow of inmates year-round, says Jack Dixon, owner of LBJ, one of the largest watermelon farms in the western US, he'd have sold out long ago. Even so, last year 400 acres of his watermelons rotted on the ground – a $640,000 loss – because there weren't enough harvesters. Mr. Dixon had applied for 60 H2-A guest worker visas, but only 14 were approved because of previous visa violations.
"We are in desperate need for hand labor," says Dixon, who started working on the farm when he was 9, alongside mostly migrant workers. "It's hard to get migrant workers up here anymore, with all the laws preventing them. It's not what it used to be," Dixon says. "It's dangerous for them with all the coyote wars and smuggling."
Other farmers wonder if inmates could be their solution. Dixon has received calls from a yellow-squash farmer in Texas inquiring about how to set up an inmate labor contract as well as from another watermelon farmer in Colorado seeking advice on how to manage inmate crews.
For labor-rights activists, federal immigration reform is the only viable solution to worker shortages.
Marc Grossman, spokesman for the United Farm Workers of America, says inmate labor undermines what unionized farmworkers have wanted for years: to be paid based on skill and experience. "It's rather insulting that the state [Arizona] would look so poorly on farm workers that they would attempt to use inmates," Grossman says. There is also the food-safety aspect, he says: Experienced workers understand sanitary harvesting.
"Agriculture does not have a reliable workforce, and the answer does not lie with prison labor," says Paul Simonds of the Western Growers Association, a trade association representing California and Arizona. "This just underscores the need for legislation to be passed to provide a legal, stable workforce." A prison lockdown would be disastrous, he points out, with perishable crops awaiting harvest. Other crops, like asparagus and broccoli, require skilled workers.
Although the ADC is considering innovative solutions – including satellite prisons – to fulfill companies' requests for inmate labor, prison officials agree that, in the end, the demand is too high. "To go into a state where agriculture is worth $9.2 billion and expect to meet a workforce need is impossible," says Katie Decker, spokeswoman for ADC. At any given time only about 3,300 prisoners statewide (out of a prison population of about 37,000) are cleared to work outside.
ACI provides inmates to nine private agricultural companies in Arizona, ranging from a hydroponics greenhouse tomato plant to a green chile cannery. Unlike other sectors where federal regulations require that inmate workers be paid a prevailing wage and receive worker compensation, agricultural companies can hire state inmates on a contract basis. They must be paid a minimum of $2 per hour. Thirty percent of their wages go to room and board in prison. The rest goes to court-ordered restitution for victims, any child support, and a mandatory savings account. Private companies are required to pay for transportation from the prison to the worksite and for prison guards.
For Reyna, his work on farms over the past couple of years has added $9,000 in his savings account and given him a renewed respect for his Mexican father's lifetime of stoop labor.
At Dixon's farm, it's 103 degrees F. The inmate crews, wearing orange jumpsuits, work in a rhythmic line, calling out the number of the watermelons, and alongside the trailer. Just a few yards away, Mexican workers also work in a line. The inmates will quit at 4 p.m., while the immigrant laborers may work 13-hour days. "We go back, they stay out here," Reyna says. "It really isn't the same."
In the farm's office, watermelons line the counter, and photos of migrant workers hang in dusty frames. When asked why he doesn't sell the farm, Dixon says, "the inmates, the migrants, these people are part of the family – that's why I keep this darn place."
Dixon says he supports the idea of a reformed, guest-worker program that would employ migrant workers during the harvest and return them to Mexico in the winter. But until that happens, he's willing to fight for the workers he's shared the land with for most of his life.
"People are crossing the border because they are starving to death," Dixon says, "I don't care what their status is. If they are hungry and thirsty, I am going to feed them."
"I could sell this and quit," he continues, "But I believe in supporting the American farming industry."