Desperate farmers hire prisoners to pick apple crop

Desperate farmers hire prisoners to pick apple crop »Play Video
A prison inmate unloads apples into a bin at the McDougall & Sons orchard in Grant County.
QUINCY, Wash. - Washington's apple industry is turning to prison inmates for help as a shortage of farm workers reaches critical proportions.

It's hard work but the acres of orchards offer inmates like Damon Hill an escape from cement cells and barbed wire.

"The view up here is spectacular - you can see for miles," says Hill.

He explains: "I had a job, got laid off, so I thought I could fall back into my old ways of selling drugs, and it didn't pan out for me. And here I sit, picking apples in an orchard."

Hill is among 105 inmates harvesting apples in one Eastern Washington orchard where growers face a farm labor shortage.

"The farmers were desperate and called us at the last minute," says Hill.

The threat of frost hangs heavy over trees thick with fruit, jeopardizing Washington's $1.5 billion a year industry.

Cool weather pushed back the harvest, and many migrant workers with expiring visas have already already left.

"We've had fewer people show up this year due to border patrols, just the fear of crossing and being able to get back down home," says farmer Scott McDougall of Grant County.

He says all year his family's fruit business, McDougall & Sons, has struggled to find pickers. Many don't return after realizing how hard the work is.

Prison labor costs apple growers three times what they paid experienced pickers, about $22 an hour for each inmate. That includes on-site security, travel and camps for the week. But if a cold spell freezes the still-ripening apples, the crop is worth nothing.

"We've got about 1000 bins able to get out, so about $300,000 worth of crop," says McDougall.

The inmates are making minimum wage picking apples here, $8.67 an hour. Out of that they must pay victim's compensation, the cost of incarceration, legal and financial obligations and child support. But it's still more than they'd make working in prison.

Hill estimates he's making about $2 an hour after all expenses are subtracted.

He says in the orchards and in prison he realizes nothing comes easily. He calls prison and picking chapters in his life about to close.

"But I can say I came and picked apples and close," he says. "You gotta keep going, life goes on."

In two weeks he gets out.