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Mendocino jail inmates tend gardens, bake bread for their own meals


UKIAH — It's not exactly Wine Country cuisine that they serve at the Mendocino County Jail. But the food offered to the jail's nearly 300 residents certainly reflects the region's embrace of fresh, colorful, locally produced food.

Very local.

Inmates bake the bread fresh daily and grow a dozen different vegetables that contribute to meals prepared in the jail kitchen under programs that cut costs while providing select prisoners a chance to taste the satisfaction that comes with producing healthy, delicious foods.

There can't be many places where one would find a guy in lockup talking cheerily about the color lent to the inmates' salads by the Ruby Red Chard of the sort he's just harvested, the way Alan Stewart, 32, does.

"Learning a trade was amazing," said Derek Silva, 44, who earned a reputation as a dedicated worker during 15 months in the bakery before his Friday release to home confinement. "Getting into a bakers' union was never anything I thought of, but now I do. It just opens up the outlook for all sorts of things."

Only six or seven male inmates are assigned to the garden and bakery crews at any given time, though different people rotate through depending on the comings and goings that are part of jail life.

The jobs are highly desirable, so some inmates start positioning themselves as candidates almost as soon as they get sentenced and hear through the grapevine what various assignments are like.

"When I first came here, I heard about it," said Tom Carlile, 49, of Santa Rosa, "and I told myself, 'I'm going to get that job.' And I did."

"I love it," Carlile said after five months in the bakery, knowing he'll leave jail one day with new skills and the food safety certification that would be required for any number of food-related jobs. "...It's a real confidence builder."

Leaning into his garden hoe, a tall, broad-shouldered, heavily tattooed man named Ron Maple spoke quietly about choosing friends carefully and avoiding confrontation in his effort to maintain a conduct record that would enhance his chances of pulling garden duty.

Maple, who served three prior stints in state prison and is serving county jail time on drug charges, reflected thoughtfully on the gift of working outdoors, developing a work ethic, and the pride he takes in the garden.

"When you're inside it's really stressful," said Maple, 49, of Covelo. "Out here it's stress-free. You're doing something productive. It gives you something to write home about, something to talk about on the phone. Something positive."

"It may not guarantee you success," said Steve Thomas, 32, of Ukiah. "But it gives guys in maximum security something to work toward."

Only two or three men are on the roster for the bakery at any given time - the third usually in training in advance of another's departure — but they manage to roll out up to 128 loaves each day, in addition to occasional french bread and cinnamon rolls for department events. They even donate 80 loaves a month to a local food bank and make extra for holiday meals served to the needy at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Only inmates who are already are sentenced are eligible. But with the county absorbing increasing numbers of non-violent offenders who would have been sent to state prison before a statewide shift of low-level inmates to county jails, there's a need for meaningful training and work programs, inmates said.

Though the jail has long had a garden program, it was nothing like it is now under the supervision and guidance of John Youngbird-Holt, who came on-board last fall, jail representatives said.

The two garden plots were overgrown when Youngbird-Holt took over and transitioned them to year-round food production, growing everything from spinach, chard, cabbage and lettuce to onions, bell peppers, bok choy, carrots and broccoli.

Vegetables from the garden go into salads, soups and other dishes served at lunch and dinner, kitchen personnel said.

"It's pretty clean. We don't use a lot of chemicals, things like that," Stewart said. "The inmates definitely know the difference."

Youngbird-Holt, a soft-spoken former Methodist pastor, serves up planting and care instructions with life advice he hopes will inspire his guys to make sure they're out for good once they depart jail.

Youngbird-Holt, said Thomas, who is doing three years for possessing 10 pounds of marijuana, "has been outspoken in offering a new perspective on work."

"On a better life," chimed in Maple.

The bakery was put together in 2009 after Sheriff Tom Allman, eager for new ways to confront shrinking budgets, asked well-known Ukiah baker Zach Schat whether the jail might be able to bake bread in-house.

After crunching some numbers, Schat helped the sheriff acquire a used commercial oven, a huge second-hand mixer and a few other necessities, and formulated a simple, every-day bread recipe from white flour, wheat flour, water, salt and yeast.

Schat and Dave Crew, a retired veterinarian turned bread-baker, conducted the initial training, with Crew making periodic visits to buff out the program where necessary.

Allman paid for the equipment with the savings from a single year, cutting the price from something like $1.31 for each loaf of Wonder Bread to the current 43 cents it costs to make a loaf in-house, officials said.

The inmates, male and female, as well as those in nearby Juvenile Hall, love having the soft, fresh bread, inmates and jail officials said. Leftovers go into bread pudding, meatloaf, croutons and other products.

"It's really a simple thing to do," said Schat, "and in the long run it saves money. I don't want to go so dramatic to say it saves some lives, but who knows?"

(You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.)