Emails Show Hickman’s Lobbied Arizona Department Of Corrections For ‘Permanent Work Camp’ To House Inmate Laborers
Email correspondence between Hickman’s Family Farms and the Arizona Department of Corrections shows the business hoped to build a “permanent work camp” on its property in Buckeye to house the female inmates who work there.
As of July, 128 women sentenced to state prison were working and living in temporary dorms at the facility.
Hickman’s is one of many companies that contract with the Department of Corrections for the use of prison labor. Arizona state law gives the Department of Corrections director the authority “to require that each able-bodied prisoner under commitment to the state department of corrections engage in hard labor for not less than 40 hours per week.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, ADC suspended most inmate work programs but provided an exception for Hickman’s. In a statement issued in March, the department announced “a plan to temporarily house approximately 140 female inmates onsite at Hickman’s.”
The department said the move would ensure “a stable supply of Hickman’s eggs for Arizona’s communities.”
At the time, the department said the on-site housing would be temporary. “Once the declared COVID-19 emergency has passed, these inmates will return to their housing location at Perryville,” the March statement said.
But emails disclosed through a records request submitted by KJZZ show Hickman’s President Glenn Hickman was already planning to make the inmate housing permanent by May.
“I think we need to establish a cadence in order to make a permanent work camp a reality,” Glenn Hickman wrote in an email to Department of Corrections administrators on May 6.
“I’m not the expert, but am guessing that legislation and regulations might be needed in order to have any chance of being able to break ground on a permanent facility around this time next year,” Hickman said.
Hickman sent the email to Department of Corrections Director David Shinn along with two deputy directors and an assistant director. Hickman Family Farms Vice Presidents Billy and Clint Hickman were copied on the email. Clint Hickman also serves on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.
Glenn Hickman continued his push for the project in the email: “I realize that Covid is the current crisis, but the reality is in both of our businesses, the unexpected becomes the expected on an almost daily basis.”
“I’m afraid if we don’t put some stakes in the ground, we will stay in limbo and not get forward movement if that is what we all desire,” Hickman wrote. “I’m sure your depth will also leave enough team members active so we don’t get sidelined with vacations and other distractions.”
Hickman ended the email by asking the group to respond with their thoughts on the proposal. When asked about the email, spokesperson Bill Lamoreaux said the Department of Corrections “currently has no plans to permanently house inmates onsite at Hickman’s.”
Hickman’s Family Farms, Glenn Hickman and Clint Hickman did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the proposal for the permanent work camp.
Lamoreaux said the women who work at Hickman’s do so voluntarily. “If they no longer want to continue working there, they may return to the Perryville Prison and seek different employment opportunities,” he said.
As of July 16, Lamoreaux said 128 women were living and working at Hickman’s. At that time, nine women had tested positive for COVID-19 at the farm.
'You’re Packing Up And You’re Going Out There'
Tianna Bowser worked on a cleaning crew at Hickman’s before she was recently released from the Arizona Department of Corrections.
“We would go in and sanitize all the processing equipment with hazardous chemicals that you had to know how to handle,” Bowser said of her work at the egg farm. “We would have to clean all the belts and the machines in there.”
Bowser said despite department statements to the contrary, women who worked at Hickman’s were not given a choice to leave their jobs when the pandemic led to the move on-site.
“We had to go talk to a lieutenant. He told us, 'if you work at Hickman’s, you’re packing up and you’re going out there,'” she said of the temporary housing constructed at the farm in Buckeye. “The lieutenant said if we quit, we would get a major ticket and get moved off the yard.”
Bowser said moving on-site to Hickman’s meant she had to forgo GED classes she was taking at the Perryville prison.
“I told them that I thought education trumped everything else in the prisons. Like, if you’re in education programming, that comes first before anything else,” she said. “But ADC told me the job at Hickman’s was more important.”
Bowser said it took the women a long time to adjust after being abruptly uprooted and moved to the dorms in the middle of the night.
“We were stacked on top of each other. It was hot. It was horrible,” she said. Bowser describes the facility where they lived as “like a big garage full of bunk beds.”
She said the women used portable showers and shared 20 portable toilets.
“There were only three washers and three driers for 140 of us who work all the time,” Bowser said. “So it was very chaotic and hectic trying to figure out your laundry cycles.”
Bowser said despite department guidelines, she was working 50 to 60 hours every week at the Hickman’s farm. She says it is not uncommon for women to work more than 40 hours a week at Hickman’s.
“All the jobs at Hickman’s are physically demanding,” she said. “It was dangerous. I’ve seen machines break. I’ve seen people get hurt — fall off of things.” Bowser said she witnessed women working in high-rise barns with no safety harnesses as they tended to chickens.
She says she and the other women at the farm felt isolated from the rest of the women at Perryville and suffered from the conditions and lack of programming.
The Department of Corrections says it remains a “proud partner” with Hickman’s Family Farm, which has used inmate labor for 25 years. The Hickman’s website touts itself as the “largest egg company in the Southwest and in the top 20 nationwide.”
“This partnership provides critical job skills for inmates,” Lamoreux said. “Food products, such as eggs, have been determined nationally to be a part of our nation’s critical infrastructure.”