Bill proposes inmate labor details for Idaho agriculture

SUNNY SLOPE, Idaho (KBOI) -- A bill just introduced in the Idaho legislature proposes tapping into the state's booming prison population to support an agricultural work force that's grown lean over the years.

"We have inmates who are able to go out and work," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, (R) Canyon County. " They're low risk."

Lodge says the idea is good for inmates, who can earn at least minimum wage to help pay off fines and restitution, and good for producers of perishable crops who often need help when it's hardest to find.

Michael Williamson, whose family has operated orchards in Sunny Slope for more than century, can attest to that.

"It can be a real challenge to find agricultural workers to come out to the fields," Williamson said, "especially at harvest time, when there's a big need for a lot of people for just a few days or a month."

The agricultural labor shortage in Idaho and the country is driven by several factors: the struggling U.S. economy, more jobs in Mexico, and bigger hurdles to cross the border to get into the United States.

Williamson has had positive experiences with inmates from Canyon County's work release program and he's interested in Sen. Lodge's bill.

His top concern is always safety.

"We have families that work with us year round," Williamson said. "And we want a safe environment for the produce and our workers."

Lodge also says her bill would ensure employed workers are not displaced. And the senator believes, working with the Department of Correction, her bill is on solid, if not fertile, ground.