Labor, Opinion/Editorial/Commentary

Opinion: Let Prisoners Work on Farms

From, The Morning Call, Jonathan H. Gerard, 20 Apr 2011.

We have known since reading John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” that the children of migrant farm workers suffer profoundly as their parents move from school district to school district and from state to state, following the crops they are hired to pick.

The low wages, estimated recently to be between $10,000 and $15,000 a year, that migrant farm workers earn — without any benefits — are untenable.

And yet this is 10 times more than the salary earned by people incarcerated in American prisons, whose earnings begin at about 42 cents an hour. Prisoners languish in front of TVs (that they eventually purchase with their wages) in their cells or they pump iron in prison yards, weather permitting.

I propose that we offer, to the appropriate prison population, the option of working on our farms.

As a former chaplain at Graterford prison, I believe that many would rush to the opportunity to increase their salary tenfold. And most would also welcome the chance to work outside, the change of scene associated with following the crop seasons and the opportunity to be useful.

Physical labor, the sun and a healthy distance from the person working nearest you all contribute to healing and restoration.

Instead of spending mountains of money to contain prisoners in 5-by-8-foot cages where, for most, nothing good happens, we ought to realize that we could reward good behavior by allowing them to volunteer for a farm worker program that would not only be good for them and for the prison system but also ameliorate the market for undocumented workers.

Prisoners already receive a minimum of health care and social services so such a farm-worker program would be a far more just one than the program now in effect for migrant workers. Perhaps these latter laborers could be enlisted in an effort to return some of the garment industry back to this country and their children could then attend the same school from September to June.

Jonathan H. Gerard, who resides in Easton, is a retired rabbi and former chaplain at the state prison at Graterford.

Source:, The Morning Call, “Let prisoners work on farms” by Jonathan H. Gerard, 20 Apr 2011.


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