Barely Trained Inmate Loses Finger Working at Hickman's Egg Farm

The barns at Hickman's Family Farms in Tonopah.
The barns at Hickman's Family Farms in Tonopah. Elizabeth Whitman
Last December, Mary Stinson was fixing a chicken feeder inside Hickman’s egg farm in Arlington, Arizona, when her left middle finger caught in the machinery.

The auger, a moving coil that pushes feed around, kept rotating. As she used her right hand to free her left, her right index finger became trapped instead. In a panic, she literally tore her finger free. Someone called an ambulance.

Stinson, who is incarcerated at Perryville prison, started working in sanitation at Hickman’s in November 2017. But on the day she lost her finger, Stinson had just switched to a maintenance job, and she was new to augers.

It was her second week being around this piece of machinery. Supervisors at Hickman’s never told her to turn it off as she worked, nor did they give her much other training, she told Phoenix New Times.

“‘Figure it out’ — that’s pretty much what they tell you,” she said in a phone interview from Perryville on Tuesday. “They’ll show you something one time, but not in deep detail.”

Stinson is now suing Hickman’s and the state of Arizona for negligence, alleging that they failed to provide a safe working environment. She is seeking $1 million from the state, according to a notice of claim, and asking a jury to determine damages from Hickman’s.

Her partially amputated finger is one of at least four serious injuries that inmates appear to have suffered while working at Hickman's. These injuries, Stinson's story, and state records suggest that Hickman’s is risking the safety and lives of the incarcerated people whom the company pays sub-minimum wages to do a dirty, dangerous job.

The state agency tasked with enforcing safety standards does not appear to have records showing that it regularly checks on this behemoth of industrial agriculture, whose vice president of sales and marketing, Clint Hickman, sits on the five-member Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.

Hickman’s Family Farms describes itself as the largest egg producer in the American Southwest, processing more than 750,000 eggs an hour. Cartons with the familiar logo of a chicken wearing sunglasses dominate the egg sections at seemingly any Fry’s, Safeway, or Bashas' in Arizona.

The company has relied on incarcerated people for labor for nearly 25 years. It began in 1995 with 10 men from Perryville repairing and building chicken coops, according to Arizona Correctional Industries, the division of the Arizona Department of Corrections that organizes prison labor, a practice that some call "modern-day slavery."

Since then, inmates have logged some 4.7 million hours of labor for Hickman’s. They drive forklifts, repair equipment — as Stinson did — and vaccinate birds, according to ACI. In 2015, nearly 300 incarcerated men and women were working at three different Hickman’s complexes.

For Stinson, who has gone back to working in sanitation, shifts lasted up to 12 hours a day, five days a week, for an hourly wage of $4.25.

ACI describes the relationship as a triple win: Hickman’s gets cheap labor, inmates learn skills, and the Department of Corrections “fulfills its responsibility to provide inmates in its charge with meaningful work.”

At the hospital, doctors could not fix Stinson’s finger. Her nail and fingertip “had no blood flow, were not viable, and could not be reattached,” states her complaint, filed in Maricopa County Superior Court on August 22.

She spent the night at the hospital, she told New Times, and upon returning to Perryville, was given Tylenol for the pain. Nearly nine months later, Stinson says she still suffers “bone-deep” pain in her dominant hand.

“My hand will just go into spasms sometimes, from my finger into my thumb,” she said. The remaining three quarters of her right index finger don’t bend, and Stinson doesn’t think her finger ever will again.

She asked the prison about starting physical therapy, and someone said they’d look into it, but it never happened. Gradually, she’s relearned daily activities like eating and brushing her teeth without a working right index finger.

click to enlarge Between barns, fountains aerate pools of manure. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
Between barns, fountains aerate pools of manure.
Elizabeth Whitman
A spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Corrections said that the department does not comment on pending litigation, and it is prohibited by law from discussing inmates' medical information. The Arizona Attorney General's office did not accept Stinson's notice of claim, spokesperson Ryan Anderson confirmed.

Two other women in prison were injured while working at Hickman's, according to Stinson. One of them was impaled in the groin and airlifted to a hospital. Another was also hurt "in her private area," Stinson said. These graver injuries were separate from the usual "cuts here and there."

Another inmate, Michael Gerhart, lost the use of one of his hands after it was crushed when he was replacing a belt on a machine at Hickman's, according to a notice of claim filed with the state attorney general's office in June. Gerhart is awaiting multiple surgeries that would likely require breaking his knuckles and using skin grafts, the notice said.

Joel Robbins, Stinson’s attorney, said that he'd been contacted by "multiple inmates" who described safety violations and injuries from working at Hickman's.

“They don’t do a lot of training,” Robbins said of the company. “On the one hand, I really want Hickman’s to be able to use prisoners and get them the opportunity to work, but they just need to pay attention to the safety.”

Hickman’s is required to report any injuries, including amputations, to the Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health, or ADOSH. These reports, along with complaints about or investigations into Hickman’s, are available only via public records request. New Times requested the information on Monday but has yet to receive these records.

The inspection database of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which includes state inspections, appears to contains no records of such inspections at Hickman's in the past five years. Searches for the Hickman name, of the egg industry in Arizona, and of the ZIP code for the Arlington factory where Stinson worked produced no results.

Trevor Laky, ADOSH’s spokesperson, confirmed Tuesday that the company falls under ADOSH’s jurisdiction, but he was not able to immediately answer questions about the frequency of inspections for Hickman’s facilities or about the company’s worker safety record.

When asked why the federal database contained no records of Hickman’s inspections, he suggested that perhaps facilities were listed under another name.

A spokesperson for Hickman's acknowledged but did not respond by deadline to New Times' questions for this story.

In addition to the risk of injury, workers at Hickman's are exposed daily to sickening smells and substances.

According to Stinson, they receive masks and safety glasses to wear while working. They are also issued cloth gloves, but most don’t bother wearing them, because the gloves don't actually protect their hands.

“We’re working with the chicken feces, and it just soaks in,” Stinson said. “There’s a lot of girls getting the 'chicken flu,'" she added, referring informally to the diarrhea and vomiting that some of the workers suffer from.

When people first start working at Hickman’s, she added, many of them react badly to the dander and other airborne particles.

“We call it the Hickman cough,” Stinson said. She herself had it, but eventually she, like most others, adjusted to the filthy air.
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.