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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

With labor shortage, Idaho inmates learn farm work

By Olivia Weitz Idaho Press-Tribune

CALDWELL, Idaho – Matthew Davidson could patch roads or do janitorial work during his time at the South Idaho Correctional Institution, but he’s decided to harvest fruit instead.

Davidson is part of a 20-person crew that works at the Caldwell-based Symms Fruit Ranch in an offender training program run by Idaho Correctional Industries.

A plumber by training, Davidson is familiar with farm labor. He grew up helping out with potato harvest in eastern Idaho before he went behind bars for drug charges.

Working in the orchards was appealing, Davidson said, because it pays more than any other job on the compound. He plans to put the $64 a week he typically makes toward renting a halfway house when he gets out of prison.

“To save 500 bucks it takes a minute,” he said. “I’m not trying to burden my family any more than I have. I’ve put myself here, and I need to put myself out.”

For Davidson, the program offers an opportunity to prepare for life outside of prison while at the same time offering Idaho growers an emergency source of labor. But for the operators of the inmate labor program, employing about 172 inmates statewide, it is a balancing act between the interests of private farms, inmates and the agricultural labor market.

Inmates fill a labor shortage at Symms

Packing fruit is hard work, said Jamie Mertz, one of the owners of Symms Fruit Ranch. Even finding civilians to do this work in triple-digit temperatures is difficult.

When the Idaho Press-Tribune spoke to Mertz in July, he was short 40 pickers – even with the inmates in the orchards.

“We need people to help with all of the different work we’re doing,” Mertz said.

Symms Fruit Ranch was the first company to sign on to the agricultural work program in 2015 after state legislation allowed inmates to work with perishable foods. Six private agriculture firms in Idaho employ inmates, the majority of which are in eastern Idaho.

In a work contract, Mertz requested 20 inmates and was given that number, although he said the numbers, from day to day, can fluctuate.

During one hot day in July, the inmate crew picked 25,000 pounds of apricots.

Mertz said if the inmates had not been picking the apricots this season, he would have to take people from the cherry crews and shift them to apricots. And that would have left fruit unpicked.

“It’s been nice to have these extra people, or I really would have had to sacrifice one or the other – cherries or apricots,” Mertz said.

Agriculture work program is one of many

Idaho Correctional Industries is a self-funded, government entity that does not receive taxpayer money. The agriculture program is just one of the training programs it offers. Others include making office furniture and license plates – mostly for government entities.

The agriculture work program is not advertised, but since the program’s inception in 2015, a handful of interested employers in southwest Idaho have approached the entity with interest including the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, according to Andrea Sprengel, the ICI financial manager who helps set up contracts for the program.

Location, labor market considered before contract

There’s a lengthy list of requirements and considerations that go into setting up a work contract to hire inmates, explained Sprengel, ranging from the particulars of the work site to consulting with the Idaho Department of Labor on the going wage rate.

If a company fits the perishable foods criteria, Idaho Correctional Industries then checks with staff at the Idaho Department of Correction to see how many inmates might be available to fill that contract request.

Sprengel said before a contract is made, Idaho Correctional Industries consults with department of correction security staff to make sure the work site is not one that is easy to gain contraband. It also must be geographically distanced from public schools.

During the process, Sprengel said it interviews the employer about how inmates fill an existing labor shortage. Idaho Correctional Industries also confers with the Idaho Department of Labor on pay rate for agriculture labor in that particular area to ensure that the pay rate does not displace other workers.

“We do this to ensure that the ag partner isn’t getting any type of discount by using inmate labor,” she said. “This isn’t a good solution if you’re looking for cheap labor. This is a good solution if you’re very desperate for workers.”

The billing rate for Symms is $8.05 per hour. During the summer harvest months, the 20 inmates typically work five days a week for eight hours a day. Some weeks they are off.

Inmates at Symms pocket $1.61 per hour. The remainder of the wages supports restitution for victims, overhead costs of running the program, security guards and transportation.

Few contracts in Canyon County

Last year, Idaho Correctional Industries set up its second contract in southwest Idaho with the Nampa-based Berry Ranch. The ranch employs between 5-10 female inmates from the South Boise Women’s Correctional Center.

The Berry Ranch could not be reached for comment.

Seasonal and year-opportunities

The Symms and Berry Ranch contracts are seasonal contracts.

The agriculture contracts in eastern Idaho, on the other hand, are mostly year-round. Idaho Correctional Industries General Manager Alan Anderson said this is largely because inmates on that side of the state are employed in potato processing and production, which occurs in other parts of the year.

“Apples and cherries, they sell them and pick them and they are done,” Anderson said.

Anderson said he has not seen a large demand from agricultural clients in southern Idaho for year-around operations, but if that were to grow it would be considered.

“If the customer wants us to do something different and we have the inmates and available to do it we would certainly entertain it,” he said. “There might be some modifications that we’d have to do and look at some staffing.”

Three of the inmates with whom the Idaho Press-Tribune spoke at Symms Fruit Ranch said they are interested in working in agricultural operations throughout the year.

“It would be so cool if they could get more contracts for jobs like this,” said agriculture crew leader Corey Kubat. “Because I wish this lasted all year. It’s like my bread and butter.”

Mertz said he could use more inmates during other parts of the year, perhaps this year for pruning dormant fruit trees, but determining just when that will be is complicated.

“That’s the tough part with the ag deal: You don’t need them all the time,” Mertz said. “That’s why it’s hard in general. In cherry season, yes. Now for the next month to six weeks, no. But then starting up the end of August, yes. It’s very seasonal.”