Inmate workers remove weeds from rows of onions on the Pisciotta farm near Avondale this past summer. The crew was part of a Department of Corrections program to help area farmers cope with dwindling numbers of migrant farmworkers in Colorado.
By PETER ROPER
THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN
A pilot program to use inmates from the Department of Corrections as farmworkers opened a new chapter Thursday when DOC officials said they would expand the program to assist five additional farms in Pueblo County.
At a meeting organized by state Rep. Dorothy Butcher, D-Pueblo, state prison officials called last summer's pilot program a great success and agreed to provide work crews to five additional farmers who attended the meeting.
Steve Smith, the acting director of DOC's Correctional Industries, said the additional farm crews would be male inmates, but the department would organize new crews to help the farmers who attended Thursday's meeting at the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce.
"Frankly, we were concerned there would be an even bigger turnout with even larger number of farms wanting work crews," Smith said.
He said the program would benefit from slower expansion. "It takes us 13 or 14 hours of work to provide you a work crew for an eight-hour day," Smith said.Even so, Karl Spiecker, DOC's chief financial officer, said the department considered last summer's program to be a huge success for the state, as well as for farmers. At the peak of the season, the DOC provided five work crews of 15 female inmates to work on Pueblo County farms. The women inmates were needed to harvest watermelons, squash, onions, pumpkins and other crops.
The farmers who came to Thursday's meeting said they would need crews starting in April and running through next January. The reason is that few migrant workers came to the region this summer as result of stricter immigration controls, leaving farmers, in some cases, wondering how to harvest their crops. Butcher said state lawmakers would help the DOC expand the program as much as possible.
"The alternative is to plow under $4.1 million in vegetables, so I'm sure we'll be able to work something out," she told Smith in a half-joking tone that still carried the message that the Legislature would have the final word over the program.
Deputy Director Lou Archuleta explained to the farmers that additional crews would have to come from male inmates, but the DOC would screen them for suitability. No sex offenders would be used and inmates nearing the end of their sentences would be given a priority.
He said any farmer wanting to participate in the program would have to take an eight-hour instruction class on how to deal with inmate workers.
Several farmers who used the women crews last summer said there were no problems with the crews except for turnover - inmates who decided they didn't like the work, requiring the farmers to frequently retrain new workers.
"But that happens anyway, even with migrant workers," Butcher acknowledged.