U.S. Highway 50 narrows a dozen miles east of Pueblo, yielding to pea-green and brown farmland, family-owned tracts that bear southern Colorado's peppers, tomatoes, melons and sweet corn.
Every year, hundreds of migrant workers travel here from Mexico and Central America to help with the harvest. But last fall, farmers along U.S. 50 noticed a dropoff in their workforce. Dozens of acres went unmowed, and produce spoiled in the fields.
Though no one can say just how many migrants left Colorado and didn't come back, most farmers convey the reason for their leaving with a degree of certainty.
"Colorado told them, "You are not welcome here,'" says Phil Prutch, a 56-year-old farmer who owns the Peppers Plus produce store.
He's referring to the slew of restrictionist bills passed last summer by the Colorado Legislature. One barred undocumented people from accessing state services. Another forced local police to ask arrestees about their legal status. The perceived hostility and fears of deportation forced immigrants out.
But Prutch's shrinking workforce might soon get a boost. Last week, he sat on the tailgate of his scratched white pickup, wearing red suspenders and Wrangler jeans. He tossed a pumpkin-seed catalog in the truck bed behind him as he described a new field team, scheduled to arrive at Pueblo County's farms in less than two months.
The convicts-for-farm-workers plan was hatched two months ago by Rep. Dorothy Butcher, D-Pueblo, after farmers like Prutch grumbled about the dearth of workers. Butcher's proposal has the makings of a cure: dozens of manual-labor positions to be filled and a large pool of minimum-security prisoners, likely itching to get out from behind bars. Butcher has touted the program as an answer to the state's recidivism conundrum, in which half of all released convicts wind up back in prison. The job skills they learn on the farms, she says, will help them survive on the outside.
But many people including prison-reform advocates and farm-workers unions don't see the proposal in such sunny terms. Even Prutch, who let six acres of tomatoes and Anaheim peppers go rotten last year, has his reservations.
"We know it isn't a fix," he says. "Maybe it is an option. No one has any idea if it will work or not."
When the program kicks off in May, a single farm will serve as the pilot site, with eight to 10 prisoners and a security guard. Prutch's 250-acre farm may be that site.
The prisoners will earn 60 cents a day, with the possibility of making an extra $30 to $60 a month. The farmers will pay the Department of Corrections $9.65 per prisoner, per hour at least a dollar more than they typically have paid migrant workers.
DOC says the revenue will go toward transportation, food and staffing costs. But some find the discrepancy troubling, and claim the program is a moneymaker for the department.
"Essentially, it is a reinvention of the plantation," says Christie Donner of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.
Donner doubts the program will translate into applicable job skills, let alone reliable work, for the prisoners after they get out.
"It is exploiting people when they are captive and ignoring their employment needs when they are released," she adds.
Still, DOC expects prisoners to jump at the chance to work outdoors. The department already connects hundreds of offenders to job programs throughout the state. Some convicts raise grapes for a winery, and others clean roads and riverbanks. But at least a few inmates appear skeptical of the farm-labor program, widely thought to be the first of its kind.
In late March, a prisoner at a Cañon City facility mailed the Independent a comic strip depicting his take on the project. In the drawing, a police officer arrests an illegal immigrant farm worker, telling him he'll go to prison and enroll in the farm-labor program.
"Come with me," says the officer. "If we hurry, you'll be back here next week earning minimum wage."
The immigrant drops the carrot he just picked, and a big question mark appears above his head.
"Root of the problem'
For the farmers' part, one challenge comes in training a workforce with little to no agricultural experience. Prutch expects that he'll start with the basics teaching the difference, for instance, between a tomato plant and a weed.
The need for that kind of training, combined with prisoners working shorter days than migrants, makes Prutch wonder how much will actually get done.
"We're paying a premium, and we don't know what we are going to get for it," he says.
Then there's safety. Prutch says subscribing farmers will go through training on the "dos and don'ts" of working with offenders.
"A stick of gum can get you in trouble," he says, naming off contraband items. "We're always worried about safety. The state of Colorado takes care of that."
Butcher, who did not return phone calls seeking comment, defended the program's safety measures in a recent Pueblo Chieftain editorial, writing that "... anywhere these prisoners go there will be Department of Corrections security personnel on hand in the event that someone does attempt to flee."
Replacing migrants with prisoners has also generated a host of questions about the symbolic value placed on farm labor.
"For us, it is not necessarily that they are using convicts," says Alisha Rosas, spokeswoman for the California-based United Farm Workers union. "That is not the issue. It is treating farm labor like it is an unskilled job. We are already dealing with farm laborers who are exploited. Now we will be dealing with prisoners who will get 60 cents a day."
The UFW recently issued a "take action" alert on its Web site, urging constituents to write to Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter to tell him "slavery is illegal."
Rosas says Colorado has ignored the "root of the problem" by bringing prisoners to the fields, instead of repealing laws that drove migrants out of Colorado but not necessarily out of the United States.
"If this is an immigration situation, then we need to not replace workforces," she says. "That is not a realistic solution. It is not even a Band-Aid solution. We need to talk about solid immigration reform."
Pueblo's farmers know this, too.
"They admitted they screwed up, but they can't fix it," says Russ Dionisio, who sells his cabbage to Kentucky Fried Chicken for coleslaw. "We are going to have to do something, one way or another."
For now, the prisoner plan however patchwork it may be is moving ahead. And Prutch looks forward to replenishing his labor pool.
"We'll hire anyone willing to work," he says. "It doesn't matter where they come from."