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.