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October 6, 2011

In praise (I think) of Georgia's efforts to put prisoners to work on farms

The title of this post summarizes my (ambivalently) positive reaction to this notable and fascinating new Atlanta Journal-Constitution story, which is headlined "Georgia may use prisoners to fill farm labor gap." Here are the details:

State officials have set their sights on another potential pool of workers to help bridge Georgia’s severe farm labor gap: prisoners. The idea is to put nonviolent inmates -- who are spending the end of their prison terms at one of the state’s 13 transitional centers -- to work picking fruits and vegetables across Georgia.

This is at least the state’s second attempt to tackle the labor shortages since enacting a tough new immigration law many farmers blame for their problems. State officials started experimenting last summer by encouraging criminal probationers to work on the farms, but results are mixed.

State officials hope the nonviolent offenders would be motivated to learn new skills, earn money and eventually land steady jobs that would help them once they get out of prison. The prisoners would help fill open jobs in Georgia’s $68.8 billion agricultural industry, the state’s largest. And Farmers could become eligible for federal Work Opportunity tax credits by hiring the offenders once they finish their terms.

State Corrections Department officials confirmed the details of the latest plan Wednesday, calling it a joint effort between the agency, Gov. Nathan Deal and state agriculture and labor officials. They said the idea is still under development, and they have not set a start date.

The work would be voluntary for the prisoners. Pay would be set by farmers, though it would be at least minimum wage. Prisoners would pay for their transportation to and from the farms.... “Gov. Deal is interested in having an organized system to match a group that needs employment with employers who need labor,” Stephanie Mayfield, a spokeswoman for the governor, said. “It’s not a cure-all, but it allows two groups with fixable needs to help each other.”

A state survey of farmers released in June showed they had as many as 11,080 jobs open. On Tuesday, the agriculture industry released a separate report documenting $74.9 million in crop losses tied to farm labor shortages. Some farmers blame Georgia’s new immigration law, House Bill 87, that targets illegal immigrants and those who harbor them. They say the measure is scaring away the Hispanic migrant workers that farmers depend on, putting their crops at risk....

Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, said putting prisoners to work on the farms “may be a partial solution.” “I don’t think we are opposed to it,” he said. “We just have got to see how well it will work.”

Deal, who signed HB 87 into law in May, reacted to the labor shortages by proposing putting probationers to work on the farms. Hall said some of the probationers who worked on two vegetable farms in Sumter and Colquitt counties during this summer’s pilot program quit because of the heat, long hours and physically taxing jobs they got.

Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black summarized more results from the pilot program Tuesday while testifying before a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Boarder Security. One farmer who participated in that program found the probationers to be half as productive as his other workers, Black said in written testimony. Another farmer found only 15 to 20 reliable workers out of 104 probationers.

“There were some obvious challenges with using probation labor,” Black said, “and the two producers found that the probationers were unable to harvest at the same rate as the other workers. At the end of the day, both producers agreed that the program had potential to meet the niche needs for farmers desperate for workers.”

October 6, 2011 at 11:57 AM | Permalink

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Comments

This is exactly the mechanism by which slavery (de facto rather than de jure) was able to persist post-emancipation (as detailed in "Slavery By Another Name"). unsurprising that it would happen in georgia.

Posted by: rageahol | Oct 6, 2011 6:24:07 PM

rageahol --

You must have missed this part:

"The work would be voluntary for the prisoners. Pay would be set by farmers, though it would be at least minimum wage."

I had not previously known that slavery was "voluntary" and that it paid "at least minimum wage," but, as I've often said, you learn something new on this blog every day.

I was betting to myself that it would take eight hours for some race hustler to show up for this one. I concede, rageahol, you won. You beat my estimate by an hour and a-half. Congratulations!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 6, 2011 6:50:00 PM

i'm glad you put "voluntary" in quotes for me, it saves me having to suggest it myself.

Posted by: rageahol | Oct 7, 2011 1:24:31 AM

rageahol --

I put "voluntary" is quotes because -- guess what -- I was quoting it from the story. Did you even read the story?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 7, 2011 4:59:58 PM

Far from being the asinine description of "slavery," I suspect that this program will be VERY popular with inmates. In NY, regular prison labor (porters, lawn crew, etc.) would get paid somewhere between 15 and 24 cents per hour. Industry jobs such as making furniture for government entities, food for the prison system, or license plates at Auburn pays a few dollars per hour. As one could imagine, the ability to afford the maximum commisary buy or send a few bucks home every month is a huge incentive. There are far fewer positions than inmates that want the jobs. I suspect the same will happen in Georgia.

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No doubt it will work well as prisoners got the opportunity to have some fresh air and it's fantastic. this is great post. love to read it.

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