Published July 13, 2007
AVONDALE, Colo. – For generations, farmers in southern Colorado have depended on immigrant labor to work their fields.
But the new immigration laws in Colorado are some of the toughest in the nation, and now illegal immigrants are hesitant to come to the Centennial State.
Farmers say only half the normal number of migrant workers appeared this year, going instead to states like New Mexico and Arizona, where the laws are not so strict.
But the soil in Colorado still has to be tilled, and the seeds have to be planted, and somebody has to be in the fields to harvest the crops so that the onions, peppers and melons don't rot in the ground.
So the state came up with a plan to replace the illegal immigrants with workers from a different kind of home: inmates from colorado's overcrowded prison system.
"It's not a cure for our immigration problem, but it's something that we can turn to and maybe get us through these times until legislation gets these laws in order…." Said Joe Pisciotta, an onion farmer who now has women from a local prison working in his fields.
"I've got to get my crops out. Tha'ts my livelihood and I've got to think about that first."
At first the farmers were concerned that the prisoners wouldn't work as hard as the illegal immigrants they are replacing. They also had concerns about having the prisoners around their families.
But only low-risk prisoners are allowed to work in the fields; sex offenders and inmates sentenced to life without parole are not permitted to participate in the program. And the prisoners are constantly supervised by a prison guard.
The farmers pay the Department of Corrections $9.60 per hour per inmate, most of which goes toward paying for the guards, transportation and lunch. The inmates themselves earn $4 a day, which is nearly seven times the 60 cents a day they can earn in prison. And the money they earn will be waiting for them once they've finished serving their sentences.
The work proved so hard, many of the women dropped out quickly. But most of those who have toughed it out say it's well worth it.
"It's one of the hardest things I've ever had to do in my life, said Kaedra, a drug offender who is working in Pisciotta's onion field.
"One of the cabbage fields … they were just little tiny plants and now they're big huge cabbage, and now we're getting ready to harvest them. And...we're actually pretty excited about it...and I wasn't expecting to feel that way."
As for the pay, Kaedra said: "I make $4 a day. For us, that's a lot."
Though some farmers were skeptical at first that the inmates could do the work, everyone now seems to be satisfied with the program. Twice the number of farms have asked the prison to provide workers this fall for the harvest.
FOX News' Carol McKinley contributed to this report.