Prison inmates picking fruit on a farmOdds are, you have at least some prisoner-picked fruits or vegetables in your fridge right now. Yep, farmers are turning to prison inmates to pick apples, watermelons, potatoes and more because they can’t find anyone else to gather their produce.

It all goes back to Republican efforts to stop undocumented immigrants from working and living in the United States. “They take our jobs!” was the conservative rallying cry. Well, it turns out that nobody else actually wanted those jobs, so now inmates have been called in to pick up the slack.

“There’s not a farm labor shortage; there’s a broken immigration system,” said Adrienne DerVartanian of Farmworker Justice in an interview with TakePart. “The solution is not to replace the current workforce but to give them the ability to work in agriculture.”

Not only is a farming one of the most dangerous jobs around — backbreaking labor, pesticide exposure and blistering heat can sicken even the toughest worker — but farmhands are grossly underpaid, sometimes making about half the minimum wage without earning a dime of overtime pay. 

Undocumented immigrants were willing to take this grueling work for lack of better options. They deserved an increase in safety standards and a big, fat raise. Instead, they’ve been removed from the workforce completely.

Enter prison-to-farm programs, a quick fix for the shortage.

The prisoners net a buck or two an hour, but farm owners aren’t seeing the savings. On one Washington apple orchard, the growers paid $22 an hour per inmate, including transportation, security and housing. They paid the workers themselves minimum wage, although those paychecks were skimmed for crime compensation, incarceration costs and other fees.

On the bright side, some prisoners seem pretty darned happy to get out of the big house for picking season. It’s hard work, but it makes them proud. “We’ve all done some wrong things in our lives. Now we’re doing some right things,” said inmate Daniel Walker in an interview with The Seattle Times. Walker’s program is voluntary, which helps explain his attitude. 

But how long can this continue — and why should it? Strong, capable people want those jobs, and they should get them instead of being forced out of the country like sub-humans. That’s just not how decent people treat each other.

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