Idaho lawmakers hear from inmates, businesses in support of inmate labor bill

February 14, 2019

BOISE — A bill that would allow Idaho’s minimum security inmates to work for additional private businesses in the agricultural industry is now headed to the Idaho Senate for a vote, after clearing a Senate committee Wednesday with unanimous support.

Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing also marked an unlikely chance meeting between Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, who sponsored the bill, and one of her former students from Lodge’s days as a teacher.

The last time Tianna Landers stood in Lodge’s classroom was about the age she started getting into drugs. She was 11 years old when she started, she testified to lawmakers, and until recently, selling drugs was the only work she knew. She spent three years in prison, then she heard about a chance to work in an orchard through the Idaho Correctional Industries program. It seemed like a good opportunity, given her rural childhood.

“It hit home with me because I knew I could do this work, and it’s made an impact on my life,” Landers told the committee.

These days, she works 36 to 38 hours per week, earning money she can put toward court costs and restitution and save for herself.

Right now, minimum security inmates, through the Idaho Correctional Industries program, can only work on the production, harvesting and processing of perishable foods. Lodge sponsored a bill allowing that change in 2014, during a year in which private companies producing perishable foods faced a dire labor shortage. Inmates opt into the program; it’s not required. During the day, they can leave the facility where they’re serving time and work in the community, albeit under the supervision of correctional officers.

Lodge’s current bill — SB 1045 — would allow inmates to work in all areas of the agricultural industry — something industry members themselves say they are in favor of. Idaho agriculture faces a major labor shortage, DeLon Lee, a representative from the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, told lawmakers.

“This has been a major complaint from our members for years, that we haven’t had sufficient labor for agriculture to keep growing in our state,” he told lawmakers.

He said he’d recently asked a roomful of bureau members how many of them had labor shortages. Everyone in the room raised their hand, he said. Then he asked how many of them would be willing to work with inmates.

“Admittedly some of the hands went down, but many of them stayed up,” Lee said.

Steve Cherry, of Kuna’s CS Beef, told the committee the plant he works at currently employs 40 inmates. Many of them stay on as employees after they serve their sentence.

“Currently we have transitioned 15 of these folks into full-time CS Beef roles,” he said.

The company has benefited from the program, he said, but he added “this program is much bigger than whatever CS Beef gets from it.”

For Landers, it meant self-worth.

“I’ve never had this sense of self-worth before — I honestly haven’t,” she told lawmakers. “Since I was 11 years old, all I’ve known is the drug life.”

SB 1045 will now head to full Senate. If it passes there, it still would face another hearing in the House, and need passage in the full House and the governor’s signature to become law. Lodge said she expects many of the same people to testify before lawmakers at the House hearing.