Is hiring inmates answer to lack of labor to pick fruit?

It was an option explored this fall. The cost is high but there could be a way to find a long-term solution.

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Fruit growers in Washington state are having an incredibly tough time finding workers to harvest their crops this fall.

Growers put the blame on rising tensions regarding illegal immigration. Others contend the pay isn't high enough for the physically demanding work. In addition, harvest has been later this year, meaning the migrant workers who are generally in the Pacific Northwest for apple harvest have already moved on.

Regardless of the reason, there is a serious problem. It's big enough that it's caught the attention of Gov. Chris Gregoire.

The Governor's Office recently called an emergency meeting in Wenatchee seeking solutions.

At the meeting, growers talked about how hard it's been to find workers, according to Seattle Times reporter Lornet Turnbull. One orchardist recalled how, of the 149 people referred to him earlier in the season by the state's unemployment office, half showed up on the first day, a quarter on the second day. The numbers dwindled until only five workers were left, Turnbull reported.

Then a representative from the state Department of Corrections surprised growers by suggesting inmate labor. It was determined putting inmates to work in the fruit orchards of Eastern Washington would be too expensive.

Yet, a grower was so desperate for workers he agreed to pay program costs of $22 an hour for each offender. More than 100 inmates from Forks began work in Grant County on Monday.

Perhaps, given the depth of the problems for growers and the state government's current fiscal crisis, a long-term, affordable arrangement for inmate labor could be worked out.

This could have several benefits.

It could help get the crops harvested.

The money earned by the inmates could be used to fund victim compensation, help defray the cost of incarceration and even allow the inmates to keep a small amount of the money.

More importantly, it would give prisoners something productive to do. They can learn skills including how to work hard.

The prison system already has several industries it operates inside the walls of prisons, including the Washington State Penitentiary.

It's tricky, however, to run these businesses as they can't -- nor should they -- compete with the private sector. The inmates at the penitentiary, for example, make license plates.

It may be that the costs -- training of inmate labor, paying corrections officer to supervise, etc. -- mean having inmates work harvest might not be financially viable.

Then, again, even it was a wash it could make sense. Agriculture is a huge part of the Northwest economy and the Department of Corrections needs every dollar to keep inmates and staff safe.

This idea is a long shot to come to fruition, but it is worth pursuing.

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