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With immigrant labor scarce because of a crackdown, Colorado may put convicts to work on farms

VINELAND, Colo. — Farmer Phil Prutch isn’t sure about putting Colorado convicts to work in his fields this summer. But then again, he says, he doesn’t have much of a choice.
    Somebody has to pick the crops. Prutch has 15 acres of rotting peppers to show what happens if someone doesn’t.
    Faced with a severe shortage of migrant farmworkers that many blame on Colorado’s crackdown on illegal immigrants, state officials are considering an experimental program that could have prisoners laboring on a half-dozen farms by May.
    The idea has horrified some activists, who see it as a return to the plantation system.
    ‘‘It’s just chain gangs and slave labor. It’s been tried before,’’ said Ricardo Martinez, co-director of Denver-based Padres Unidos, an immigrant rights organization. ‘‘It’s not like there’s mental giants at the state Capitol developing solutions here.’’
    Colorado has enacted one of the nation’s toughest crackdowns on illegal immigrants, denying most nonessential services to people in the country illegally, requiring more identification to get driver’s licenses, and putting pressure on state and local law enforcement officers to cooperate with federal immigration agents.
    Normally, perhaps 10,000 migrant farmworkers — some legal, some illegal — come through Colorado each year, planting, cultivating and harvesting such crops as onions, peppers, melons and pumpkins, said Larry Gallegos, an advocate for farmworkers in the state Labor Department. But he predicted their numbers will be down as much as 40 percent this year.
    Prutch, like other small farmers, said the labor shortage is dire. The five to 20 migrant workers he and his family typically counted on for decades have disappeared, and his peppers went unharvested last fall because he couldn’t find anyone to pick them.
    ‘‘Our problem in Colorado is we chased them off,’’ said Prutch, who farms 250 acres. ‘‘Legal or illegal, we made them feel unwanted. These people just want to work.’’
    Migrant farmworkers in Colorado are typically paid $8 to $9 an hour. Under a plan under consideration by prison and agricultural officials, farmers would pay the state an hourly wage — $10 is one rate under discussion — for each inmate.
    The inmates would get the state’s standard 60-cents-a-day credit for prison labor, while the rest of the money would go toward their housing, food, transportation and guards while they are working.
    Some worry that many convicts are city dwellers who lack the know-how to work on a farm and are unaccustomed to the backbreaking work. Prutch, for one, said he fears he will constantly have to train convicts how to recognize a ripe pepper, how to distinguish a pepper plant from a weed, and how to wield a hoe without damaging the roots.
    State prison officials say the program could help inmates learn a trade, practice teamwork and develop a work ethic that will help them return to society. It would be open strictly to low-risk, minimum-security inmates who volunteer.
    ‘‘We’re very excited about it,’’ Corrections Department spokeswoman Alison Morgan said. ‘‘We probably have 4,300 to 4,500 inmates who would qualify for this.’’
    Colorado inmates already work at a dairy that provides all of the milk for the prison system, and build furniture, tame mustangs and export farm-grown fish. But those enterprises are run by the state or nonprofit organizations. This would be the first time Colorado convicts have been put to work for private businesses, Morgan said.
    In Arizona, state inmates have been working on private farms for more than a decade. Arizona egg farmer Clint Hickman said he is thrilled with the program, which delivers up to 50 inmates a day to work for him. He said he would jump at a chance to hire inmates to work at an egg farm his family just bought in Colorado.
    Austin Perez of the National Farm Bureau said the farmworker shortage is nationwide as the government cracks down on immigration. Both legal and illegal immigrants find it easier to land steady jobs in landscaping or construction than take a chance traveling from state to state with the growing seasons, he said.
    ‘‘We can’t replace those people. People may think it’s unskilled labor, but it’s not unskilled,’’ he said. ‘‘Get up on a ladder 20 feet in the air to pick apples or stay up all night calving, to help a dairy cow give birth, it is not unskilled.’’
    Prutch he worries not only about the cost and the need for training, but the possibility that the inmates might be casing his place to rob it someday. But he said he will take any help he can get, and suggested the publicity might force lawmakers to come up with a guest worker program so he can get his skilled crews back.
    ‘‘Probably the farmers are more skeptical about this than anybody. We’re skeptical about everything,’’ he said. ‘‘No way is it going to fix the problem. It might not even be a Band-Aid.’’

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