Illegals of different sort doing farm work

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AVONDALE, Colo. — Those who say illegal aliens are doing the jobs Americans won’t do apparently forgot about American convicts.

Take Lisa Richards, who is serving a five-year sentence at the La Vista Correctional Facility for what she describes as a “money crime.” Since May, she has been logging eight hours a day thinning and weeding onion and watermelon crops at a family farm in Pueblo County.

It’s hard work — “a lot harder than you would think,” she said — but it beats being cooped up inside the prison.

“When you’re out here on the farm, you feel like you’re part of the community,” said Richards, wearing the yellow T-shirt that identifies the convict laborers. “You’re out in the fresh air, you’re here with the animals. It’s nice.”

Richards, 36, is one of 10 women participating in the Colorado Department of Corrections farm-labor pilot program. The program, which began in May and is thought to be the first of its kind nationwide, sends the trained and supervised inmate crew to lend a desperately needed hand at local farms.

Convict labor probably wouldn’t be the first option for most local farmers, but they had little choice. During the 2006 special session, the Colorado legislature enacted a series of measures designed to crack down on illegal aliens.

The new laws worked so well that migrant workers began avoiding Colorado. With the labor supply reduced to a trickle, some farmers were unable to harvest their crops last fall, state Rep. Dorothy Butcher said.

“There was all this publicity saying we had the toughest immigration laws in the country,” said Mrs. Butcher, a Democrat and a critic of legislation against illegal aliens. “Well, that sent the message that Colorado was closed for business.”

Worried about the future of agriculture in her district, she contacted the state corrections department, which runs Colorado Correctional Industries, a work program for inmates. Five local farms with a combined 2,400 irrigated acres agreed to participate.

Aristedes Zavaras, corrections department executive director, called the program a “win-win for Colorado,” noting that the farmers gain labor while the inmates obtain “meaningful work and a chance to gain skills and ethics, which will assist them in obtaining sustainable employment upon release.”

Not everyone is as thrilled with the program. Mrs. Butcher said she has been contacted by immigrant-rights groups and the United Farm Workers concerned about the devaluing of skilled farm labor.

Some critics have raised the specter of the old chain gangs, in which inmates were forced to work under filthy conditions for no pay. “When we tell them our prisoners are volunteers, they understand,” Mrs. Butcher said.

The farmers pay $9.60 per hour per inmate, which covers the crew supervisors’ wage, transportation, meals, water and tools. The prisoners earn $4.00 per hour, with the potential to make up to $5.50 per hour if they stay with the program.

The inmates, who must be on minimum-security status to participate, say that’s good money compared with other prison jobs, which typically pay less than $1 per hour.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” said Kaedra Peterson, 32, who is serving time on drug charges. “You use muscles you didn’t even know you had. I have a whole [new] perspective on what these guys go through.”

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