Revolution #82, March 18, 2007
Colorado’s Farm Plan:
Replacing Immigrant Labor with Slave Labor
Last summer, the Colorado legislature passed a vicious package of state laws aimed at immigrant workers. The new laws denied many state social services to immigrant families who do not have legal residency papers. They required very strict documentation in order to get Colorado drivers licenses. And the laws pushed to have state and local police turn over arrested immigrants to federal immigration agents. Similar repressive laws have been proposed in a number of states across the U.S.—at the same time as federal immigration police are also escalating their raids of workplaces and arrests of undocumented immigrants.
Faced with such persecution, significant numbers of immigrant workers, including many farm workers, left Colorado and stayed out of the state when the 2006 harvest time arrived. Crops rotted on farms across the state—without many of the immigrant workers who have previously picked the melons, pumpkins, onions, peppers and other cash crops.
Colorado farmers used to employ tens of thousands of undocumented migrant workers during the growing season—and many workers returned to the same farms over many years. This year, as many of half of these workers are not expected to return as usual.
Colorado officials have been working feverishly to come up with a plan to overcome this sudden “labor shortage” in their state. In February, they rolled out their new proposal: Replacing immigrants on the farms with prisoners working as slaves! Specifically, the state’s prison authorities plan to hire out work crews of prisoners to farmers. The prisoners would perform the backbreaking labor of cultivating and picking the crops under armed overseers.
Though the details have not all yet been finalized, the current plan is for farmers to pay the state about $10 an hour for each prisoner, while the prisoners themselves would get only 60 cents a day as base pay. The rest of the money would be pocketed by the state as profit and as payment for providing the armed guards. According to the Colorado Prison Justice Reform Coalition, Colorado’s state prisons are over 50 percent Black and Latino.
Colorado prison authorities hope to have 100 prisoners working on five or six Colorado farms by May. This plan could quickly extend to many more farms this year since state authorities are worried that farmers might choose not to plant crops if they are not reassured that the state will help provide a workforce in the fields to help harvest them. "We're very excited about it," a Corrections Department spokeswoman said. "We probably have 4,300 to 4,500 inmates who would qualify for this."
These authorities treat farm workers as criminals for arriving without documents, but they clearly believe it is quite fine for themselves to offer work crews of slave laborers to those same farms! The Colorado prison authorities sound like the Southern slave owners of the past when they try to argue that this degrading and oppressive slave labor is an “opportunity” for the prisoners themselves! Ari Zavaras, director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, claimed, “They won’t be paid big bucks, but we’re hoping this will help our inmates pick up significant and valuable job skills.”
Human slavery was abolished in the U.S. in 1865—when the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed right after the defeat of the Southern slave owning class in the Civil War. But the 13th Amendment inserted a carefully written exception right into the U.S. Constitution: It said slavery was not abolished for prisoners. In the deep South, this loophole was immediately used to create a system of prison chain gangs. Large numbers of Black people were railroaded into prison, often for the pettiest of crimes, and forced to work as slaves in the construction of railroads, highways and river levees. Many were even “hired out” by the Southern state governments to the owners of plantations and timber companies.
As the historic struggle of Black people arose in the 1950s, this chain-gang form of slave labor was suspended for the time being. But prisoners have been routinely forced to work virtually without pay within U.S. prisons. And prison chain gangs have been brought back with a vengeance in recent years.
Now Colorado’s government proposes to bring back open slave labor outside prison walls on the state’s farms. And this is unlikely to stop in Colorado. Iowa’s Department of Corrections is preparing a similar program, and the director of Iowa's prison industries program reports he is already getting calls from farmers, including one request for 200 prisoners.
(For more on the overall attacks on immigrants, see “Mass Deportations, Vigilantes, Government Suppression: STOP the Fascist Assault on Immigrants!” in Revolution #80, online at revcom.us.)
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