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Forced Labor? Georgia's Anti-Immigrant Law Is Pushing Probationers Into Farm Work

Draconian anti-immigrant laws have pushed immigrants out of farm work in Georgia. The solution? Push people on probation into those jobs.

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There's a loaded history behind this proposal. With the passage of the 13th Amendment in the United States, slavery was outlawed, leaving farms in the South with a serious shortage of available farm hands. Georgia led the way with a novel solution in 1868: convict leasing. Other states quickly picked up the model, using disproportionately black prison labour for all their farming needs. Writing in 1893, Frederick Douglass pointed out the complex dualistic relationship between convict leasing and lynch laws in the South, and the fact that the majority of the labor used was black. Leased convicts received no compensation for their work, although the state certainly did; from one form of slavery into another, with the state as master rather than the plantation owner. Despite being outlawed in the early 20th century, the practice left a profound legacy in the United States, particularly in the South.

Prison labor in the United States is legal and actively used by a number of states, at least 37 of which have created lucrative private contracts for prison labor. Prison laborers receive pennies on the dollar for their work and do not benefit from worker safety protections. Comparisons of modern-day prison labor to slavery, especially given the racial disparities in the prison system, are often dismissed. After all, the 13th Amendment does legalize slavery “as punishment for a crime.” Under this system, turning to probationers to meet a labor shortage is not so much of a stretch; it's perhaps more astounding that the governor hasn't proposed reviving convict leasing under another name, which will probably be next on the agenda before the state gives in and promotes a “guest worker” program where immigrants can labor until no longer needed before being discarded.

Georgia's prison system is rife with inequalities and serious health and safety issues. A recent survey of the prison population shows inmate numbers on the rise, with escalating costs for prisoner maintenance, thanks to aggressive laws passed in the 1990s to take a “tough stance” on crime. These laws result, as in other states, in a prison population bulging with nonviolent offenders trapped in the system under mandatory sentencing laws. If Georgia doesn't watch out, it will turn into another California, and face a mandate to reduce the number of inmates to address overcrowding.

Georgia's prison population is heavily slanted black, with a large percentage of poor whites as well; Georgia prisons have a roughly three to one ratio of black to white inmates. Last year, the state's prison system made major headlines with a multi-facility prison strike over poor living conditions. Release from prison doesn't mean an escape from inequality in South Georgia, where the agricultural industry is concentrated, with a population of 8,000 parolees and a staggering 25 percent unemployment rate among them, according to numbers from the Georgia Department of Corrections. The suggestion to use probationers as laborers is not occurring in a vaccum.

Probationer labor might not even work out, according to Jim Bogart, representing the Grower Shipper Association. Bogart points out that farm labor is grueling, demanding work and that people who are not in peak physical condition may not be able to withstand the demands of hours in the fields. The terms of probation in Georgia require parolees to seek “suitable employment,” but as the high unemployment rate illustrates, this is easier said than done. The same job discrimination that makes it difficult for probationers and ex-convicts to get employed in other states is present in Georgia, as evidenced by the high unemployment rate among probationers and resistance from the the agricultural community in response to the suggestion to use them as a labor force.