Hickman's Family Farms to House Arizona Inmate Workers During COVID-19 Pandemic

The barns of Hickman's Family Farms in Tonopah, Arizona.
The barns of Hickman's Family Farms in Tonopah, Arizona. Elizabeth Whitman
In an extraordinary move, the Arizona egg behemoth Hickman's Family Farms is moving more than half of its inmate workforce out of prison and into company housing closer to its barns so that it can continue to use prison labor to produce eggs during the coronavirus pandemic.

Those workers are slated to be 139 women, longtime Hickman's workers and minimum custody offenders who would otherwise be incarcerated at Perryville Women's Prison in Goodyear, according to the Arizona Department of Corrections.

The Arizona Department of Corrections and Hickman's decided that housing the women on-site was "necessary" during the pandemic "to control the potential spread of COVID-19 to thousands of other inmates," ADC said in a news release Wednesday.

To date, six people in Arizona's state prison system have been tested for COVID-19, and advocates for incarcerated people fear that those prisons will not be able to contain the spread.

Moving these women out of Perryville and into Hickman's facilities is critical for Hickman's business, too, guaranteeing the company a stable and accessible supply of labor in uncertain times.

Under normal circumstances, Hickman's depends heavily on prison labor, and on any given day, it has 200 inmates working at its facilities, Hickman's CFO, Jim Manos, previously told Phoenix New Times.

During the global COVID-19 pandemic, as people stock up on groceries and supplies and the economy grinds to a halt, food production is officially critical infrastructure. In Arizona, it's defined as an essential business, per an executive order issued Monday by Governor Doug Ducey.

In a news release Monday, ADC said it was "significantly reduc[ing]" the number and frequency of inmate work crews being sent out.

ADC has not yet specified which Hickman's facility the women will work at. The company has three farms, in Arlington, Tonopah, and Maricopa, that house 9 million hens laying close to 2 billion eggs a year. Of those, Arlington and Tonopah already use inmate work crews.

ADC has also has not said where the women will be housed and when they will be moved. Its news release Wednesday said that "a notice letter regarding this temporary arrangement has been delivered to the surrounding community."

Department spokesperson Judy Keane did not answer questions from New Times about when the community was notified and how, but she did share a copy of the letter, which can be found at the bottom of this story.

Dated Tuesday, March 24, it said first that COVID-19 had "caused a strain on our nation's food supply," and that food and agriculture workers, including those at Hickman's, have been designated critical infrastructure.

"Hickman's has requested that due to its need to keep its critical operations running, it still needs the labor provided by ADCRR inmates," the letter said.

Then, burying the bombshell lede at the top of page two, the letter revealed that "in order to protect the health and safety of ADCRR's inmate population, and ensure the health and welfare of the state, ADCRR and Hickman's have determined that it is necessary to temporarily house approximately 140 female inmates who presently work at Hickman's ... onsite at Hickman's for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency."

It said that the move was necessary "to ensure a stable food supply" and added that the women "represent a low risk to the public and staff" and that they would be "closely monitored and supervised" at all times.

The letter was signed by ADC director David Shinn and Glenn Hickman, CEO of Hickman's Family Farms.

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Does this label look familiar?
Elizabeth Whitman

'They Are Concerned About the Media Finding Out'

Hickman's, ADC, and the governor's office have avoided providing details about how this decision was made, although they say it is a necessary, critical move.

In response to questions from New Times on Tuesday, Hickman wrote, "We will respond tomorrow." On Wednesday, he wrote, "I understand [the Department of] Corrections will be communicating with you directly this morning."

In a statement included in ADC's news release Wednesday, Hickman said that the women being brought from Perryville "perform critical tasks related to the raising of baby chicks."

"Besides daily care, they also perform most of the tasks of vaccination,” he added, saying that proper care for the chicks "ensures an uninterrupted food supply tomorrow."

Patrick Ptak, a spokesperson for Governor Doug Ducey, redirected questions from New Times for the governor's office to ADC.

In a statement sent in response to specific questions from New Times, Keane, the ADC spokesperson, said that the decision was "a joint and collaborative one" between Hickman's and the department.

"The [Department of Corrections] Director has both general and specific legal authority under Title 31 and Title 41 of the Arizona Revised Statutes to act in the event of a public health emergency," she added.

Questions about communications between the governor and Hickman's, she said, should be directed to the governor's office.

According to ADC, the women working at Hickman's "will be housed in one location, with all necessary accommodations and security measures." The news release did not provide more detail.

The arrangement is temporary, but there's no telling how long it could last. According to ADC, the women will return to Perryville "once the declared COVID-19 emergency has passed."

Rumors of such a move have been floating around Perryville since the weekend.

Sue Braga, who was formerly incarcerated at Perryville and now advocates for reform, keeps in contact with women there. She began hearing on Sunday that Hickman might house crews closer to its farms.

"I can't believe they still want them working after all that's been going on," one of the women wrote to Braga, in an email Braga shared with New Times.

Another woman, who apparently works at Hickman's, was not happy about the proposal. "wtf that's crazy I'll quit I'm not doing that no phone calls no tablets hell no won't do it," she wrote Braga.

A third told her on Tuesday that 139 bunks had already been moved out, and that "they are concerned about the media finding out and our families."

(Correction: Six inmates were tested for coronavirus, but the results are still pending.)

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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.