Is inmate labor the answer?

Published 8:31 am Monday, October 17, 2011

As farms and other industries in Alabama feel the effects of the state’s new sweeping immigration law, some have speculated whether the prison population could help offset the loss of workers. McMillan has said some “unintended consequences” have been seen across the state as farmers begin losing immigrant workers in large numbers.

The new law, which lays down strict penalties for immigrant workers and their employees, has caused a significant drop in filled positions across the state that require manual labor, including the state’s farming markets.
During a recent interview with The Huntsville Times, McMillan proposed Alabama use its prison population to offset the loss of immigrant workers, an idea that could be of particularly interest in Escambia County, which houses two prisons and is made up largely of farm land.

Brian Corbett, spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections, said there is no plan in place to employ the use of inmate labor for use on farms, but he added that the ADOC’s existing work release program could be used in a similar fashion.

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“There is no official push or anything to use inmate labor on farms,” Corbett said. “But if anyone does require inmate labor they can call us and if we can, we will supply inmate labor that meets their needs.
That’s our job in the work release program.”

Corbett said that, while certain standards must be met by employers before inmates are assigned to them, the work release system, when utilized, is not much different than what McMillan proposed. He said the system has been meeting employment needs for years and will be happy to help aide farmers who apply for inmate labor.

“We were available before all this came down, and we’re still available,” Corbett said.

The state’s immigration law was challenged in court by the federal government as well as church and immigrant advocates. U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn upheld much of the law — including a provision that require schools to report how many students are undocumented.

While school systems with a high immigrant population have reported high numbers of student absences or withdrawals, Escambia County Schools Superintendent Billy Hines said he has seen no problems from the new law.