Farms Get Help From Inmates

Farms get help from inmates

Prison's farm team: Inmate work program benefiting low-risk convicts and labor-strapped farmers

By Kirk Mitchell , Denver Post Staff Writer
Article Last Updated: 07/11/2007 11:31:42 AM MDT

(Photo: Misty Williams, center, and other prisoners from Pueblo's minimum-security La Vista Correctional Facility pull weeds at an onion farm outside Avondale. “It's been a great opportunity,” inmate Linda Buckham, says of the new Farm Workers Program that pays prisoners. (JOHN LEYBA/THE DENVER POST)

Pulling at band-aids wrapped around her blistered fingers, Linda Buckham remembered how elated she had felt seeing a peacock and hearing cattle.

“'All we're missing is a rooster crowing,”' she recalled telling a fellow prison inmate at the time. “And then a rooster started crowing.”

Buckham, incarcerated for embezzlement, is one of 15 prisoners at Pueblo's minimum-security La Vista Correctional Facility who plant crops and pull weeds as part of a new prison farm-labor program.

Buckham, who spoke with reporters Tuesday on an onion farm outside Avondale, is so happy to leave prison each day that she doesn't mind rising at 3:30 a.m. and working in 100-degree heat.

The farmers are equally pleased to see Buckham and her fellow prisoners come to their farms, said state Rep. Dorothy Butcher, who helped to create the new Farm Worker Program.

(Photo: Inmates learn to protect their hand using band aides and tape like 46-years-old Linda Buckham on her right hand. (JOHN LEYBA/THE DENVER POST))

“In the beginning, (farmers) were all very skeptical,” said Butcher, D-Pueblo. “That's not their opinion today.”

Katherine Sanguinetti, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Corrections, said the inmates stay occupied, making it easier to manage them. Also, letting farmers pay for inmate labor helps prevent farms from going under. “It's a win-win situation,” she said.

The traditional farm laborers, who planted and picked vegetables on southern Colorado farms, are staying out of the state after legislators last year passed one of the country's toughest laws against illegal immigrants, Butcher said. She said the farmers see Colorado inmates as their possible salvation – the most viable replacements for the gaps once filled by illegal immigrants.

Five farmers recently vouched for the program in a letter distributed to reporters Tuesday. The farmers, who declined to identify themselves, wrote that after illegal immigrants stopped coming to Colorado, they called a local unemployment office and advertised for help in the newspapers. But they received no responses.

“We have been pleasantly surprised at the serious motivation the inmates have shown to learn different skills and also their ability to hang in,” the letter says.

La Vista prisoners were the first to start cultivating crops on southern Colorado farms in May under the DOC program. A second farm team begins work today.

As many as 4,500 Colorado inmates qualify because their security levels make them a low-enough escape and violence risk to allow them to work on farms, Sanguinetti said. A DOC employee watches the inmates, but the arrangement is far more casual than that found in the chain gangs of old.

Although Colorado has other inmate-labor programs, this new one is the first to attempt to solve such a broad problem as the state's farm-labor shortage.

The inmates who volunteered to work on the farm said it isn't easy work, but it offers many solutions to their own problems at prison.

“I'm not sitting in the facility and being depressed and sleeping all the time,” Buckham said. “It's been a great opportunity.”

Kaedra Peterson, 32, in prison for drug possession, said her pay increased from 60 cents a day for prison work to $4 a day at the farm. She used to rely on money from her grandmother to buy basic necessities such as toothpaste and soap. Now, she can pick up that tab as well as pay more toward restitution.

Butcher said farmers pay $9.60 an hour per inmate for the labor. The money covers all the program's expenses, including the supervisor's salary and transportation to and from work.

Staff writer Kirk Mitchell can be reached at 303-954-1206 or