death on the fields in Pueblo, CO

some background about the farm crews at La Vista Correctional Facility (from Tenacious issue 14, Spring/Summer 2008):

I should explain what exactly the farm crews are and how they came to be part of La Vista. As our country has been especially concerned with immigration issues, sometime within the past few years nearby farms have been raided and their owners were found to be employing illegal immigrants to work in their fields. The farm owners then needed an alternative to replace this extremely cheap labor, which is how contracts were developed between Colorado Industries, Colorado Department of Corrections and the farms. At first, the farmers were skeptical about the reliability and quality of work the women were capable of performing; my friend, who works on a farm crew, said that some of the farmers told her that they doubted the women would work as hard as the male workers that they replaced.

But this past year more farms want contracts.

Working on the farm crew is considered an incentive position in our facility because inmates can earn a significantly higher amount of pay for their labor and can earn an additional ‘incentive’/bonus pay if the crews collectively reach a certain quota in earnings for the farms each month. The so-called high pay that inmates on the farm earn starts at $4 a day. After 20 days, it increases by 50-cent increments and is capped at $5.50 a day, the highest pay slot available. (To compare, other jobs in the facility pay 60 cents a day while other types of Colorado Industry labor positions pay from 60 cents to $1.50 a day) The farm pays DOC $9 per hour for each worker. It is apparent why the farm crew has become such a priority for La Vista.

Since more farms are entering contracts with DOC, more slaves are needed. Consequently, women are being shuffled between the four Colorado women’s facilities to meet the required amount of women at La Vista who are eligible to work on a farm crew. To be eligible, an inmate cannot have any medical restrictions and must qualify for a gate pass (which allows her to leave the facility’s grounds), something that is determined by factors such as length of sentence and type of crime (violent or non-violent).

Many women who do not meet the criteria for a gate pass are paranoid that they will be transferred elsewhere and traded for an inmate who does. Women who are eligible for gate passes but are enrolled in other programs also fear that they will be removed from their current positions and placed on a farm crew as needed. Both scenarios are a harsh disappointment to women who have invested much time, effort and hope in their current education and work programs.

The policy used to be that an inmate would not be transferred between facilities if she was enrolled in certain education classes. Already, one woman, who was in my graphic design class and was not eligible for a gate pass, has been traded to another facility. During a critical time in the harvesting season last year, many inmates were pulled from their jobs and positions in education programs to fill needed spots on the farm crews. (when this happens, inmates are forced to comply–a refusal to work results in a write-up and disciplinary action). While the courses that are offered through local colleges were in session last year, a few of the women who worked on the farms repeatedly missed great portions of class since they returned to the facility late into the evening. When they requested to be brought in earlier so that they could attend class on time, they were denied with an answer that “farms take precedence.”

DOC even has an advertisement campaign for the farm crews. The main ploy used is money, of course. What else would convince us to sign up for the intense working conditions? Many of us receive limited or no financial support from friends or family, so working on the farm crew to earn a bit more is an option we will resort to. ( Plus canteen prices continuously rise while our insufficient state pay remains the same). Advertisements have been posted in our facility as well as in others, asking for volunteers to come to La Vista to work on a farm crew. Some of these have gone so far as to encourage women who are willing to participate in the strenuous work to also postpone/waive submitting their community and parole papers (The farm owners want to keep the same women around for an entire season). Basically DOC wants us to choose to volunteer for eight hours a day, six days a week slave labor instead of taking the opportunity to be released from prison. It’s more important to earn them more money instead of investing in our own lives.

and now, from the Pueblo Chieftain :

"Inmate Dies After Working Fields" by Peter Streseino,
August 27, 2008

A La Vista corrections facility inmate died last week after collapsing while working in a farm field on South Road. Bonnie Neal, 43, died at Parkview Medical Center on Thursday, according to Pueblo County Coroner James Kramer. Kramer said she died after suffering a pulmonary embolism while picking watermelons. She had only been an inmate at La Vista for a couple of days.

The coroner did not have Neal's hometown. Calls to the Colorado Department of Corrections were not returned and a staffer at Parkview said the only information they had on Neal listed her being from the prison facility.

Neal was part of a program that allows prisoners to work in the fields of local farmers.