CALDWELL, Idaho — A program that allows some agricultural businesses to use state inmate labor when they can’t find enough workers could be expanded next year.
Six ag businesses in Idaho are currently using the program and the number of inmate workers fluctuates between 150 and 261.
Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, who authored the 2014 legislation that created the program, told fellow legislators at the time she envisioned it as a way to help farm businesses that faced a serious labor shortages while also assisting with the rehabilitation of inmates.
That’s exactly what it’s doing now, she said.
“I feel so good about the program,” Lodge, who raises cattle and is a former vineyard owner, told Capital Press. “The ag industry is the most important industry in the state of Idaho and we’ve got to have the workers.”
Lodge lives near the Sunny Slope region of southwestern Idaho, where the state’s fruit industry is centered.
She said she authored the bill after seeing a lot of fruit left on trees because of a lack of workers to pick them and hearing from orchardists about the dire labor situation they faced.
Lodge said she plans to introduce a new version of the bill during the 2018 legislative session that could allow more sectors of the farm industry to use the program.
The authorizing legislation puts some limits on who can use the program, she said.
For example, it says the inmates can be used to help harvest perishable farm commodities but the nursery industry can’t use it because most of their products are ornamentals.
“We’re going to try to expand (the) ability of some other ag industries to use it,” she said.
The program is being used by two fruit companies in southwestern Idaho and four potato-related companies in East Idaho, said Andrea Sprengel, who oversees the program for Idaho Correctional Industries.
Those workers, who are low-risk inmates, perform a variety of jobs, including planting, pruning, picking, packing, grading, sorting and operating trucks.
Before Lodge’s bill, ICI had to use a federal program that took four to six months to set up for each businesses that wanted to use inmates.
“(That’s) pretty inconvenient when you’re waiting on a crop that needs attention within the week or month,” Sprengel said.
Lodge’s bill has greatly expedited that process, Sprengel said.
“The nice thing about this program is that we’re able to get inmate workers out there quickly,” she said.
The program is for companies that face a serious labor shortage and not a way for them to obtain cheap labor, Sprengel said. To ensure that’s the case, businesses are required to pay inmates the prevailing wage and acknowledge they have tried to get a non-inmate workforce.
Some of the money the inmate makes goes into a victims’ restitution program and some goes to pay for the cost of the program. The inmate keeps a portion.