Inmates harvest grapes in Mendocino County

REDWOOD VALLEY - Harvesting wine grapes is a hot, dirty, physically challenging job, but Clinton Durant, a Mendocino County Jail inmate, is happy to have the opportunity to work and earn money through an unusual new jobs program initiated this summer by Sheriff Tom Allman.

“I love it. I love being out here,” Durant said.

It’s the first time anyone can recall that inmates have been hired to work in local vineyards and the first time the jail has acted as an employment agency, connecting inmates with private employers who are having trouble finding workers. It’s good for employers, good for the inmates and good for the public because it could help rehabilitate law breakers and reduce recidivism, officials say.

“When they get out, they will have a bank account and can put a roof over their heads,” said the county jail commander, Capt. Tim Pearce.

Most jobs available outside the jail involve public service, such as pulling weeds and road cleanups. Inside jobs include working in the jail’s laundry, kitchen or garden. None of those are paid positions.

The only other paid jobs are ones that inmates held before they were incarcerated and are allowed to keep through a probation department furlough program.

“This program is entirely different,” Allman said.

It was triggered by conversations he had with local employers.

“I’ve had three employers complain to me how hard it is to find employees who show up to work on time and pass drug tests,” he said. And in some cases, they face competition from employers in the lucrative underground marijuana business.

It’s especially difficult for farmers to find enough seasonal workers for grape harvests, which require intensive work over a short period of time. Most vineyards have year-round workforces but need many more people for harvest. It’s a chronic problem that worsened several years ago following a border crackdown. The shortage pushed more farmers toward mechanized harvesting, which in turn has made seasonal laborers reluctant to come here because there are fewer jobs, said Dave Downey, a Ukiah-area vineyard owner and labor contractor.

Redwood Valley vineyard owner Martha Barra said she’s tried hiring job seekers who hang out at the local market, but they’re not interested.

“They said, ‘No, we want to trim buds and make $20 an hour,’?” she said.

Durant and five other inmates picking pinot noir grapes at Barra of Mendocino on Wednesday said the work is difficult but they were thrilled to have the opportunity.

“This helps me out a lot,” said Jaime Gonzalez, who became homeless after becoming addicted to methamphetamine and losing his job. He said he expects to earn enough to pay off his court fines and start a new life after he completes a drug rehabilitation program in Eureka.

There are nine inmates in the program altogether. Three are longer-term inmates who have found year-round jobs they will be able to keep after being released if they prove themselves worthy. One, a welder, already has saved enough money in three months to buy a bicycle to ride to his job at Factory Pipe in Ukiah. He’s serving a five-year sentence and hopes to earn enough for a down payment on a home when released. “He’s a model employee,” said Factory Pipe owner Ross Liberty.

Only inmates serving sentences of more than a year will be matched with the long-term jobs, Allman said. All the inmates in the program are low risk. No serious, violent or sex offenders are eligible, he said. They pay the cost - $11 a day - to wear GPS tracking devices on their ankles and are monitored via a computer screen, where they appear as time-stamped green dots.

Unlike other low-risk inmates who are allowed to work while in jail, most of these inmates lost their jobs, and many their homes, before being arrested.

Durant said he became homeless after splitting up with his wife, who remarried and moved to Texas with their two children.

“I got depressed and started drinking too much,” he said.

Being arrested following a drunken scuffle with police “is working into a positive thing for me,” Durant said.

In addition to placing them in jobs, jail staff has assisted the inmates - all of them legal residents - in obtaining the identification documents they need to get jobs and to open bank accounts.

Wednesday was just the second day for the vineyard workers, and they were slow compared with the experienced laborers. But Barra expects time on the job to increase their speed, and their wages. The workers are paid $3 a tray - about 40 pounds - to pick pinot noir grapes.

“We have no doubt” they’ll speed up, she said. Meanwhile, the slower pickers will be paid at least minimum wage, Barra said.

Barra said she never imagined hiring inmates, but she thinks it’s a great idea.

“Tom is really creative,” she said of the sheriff.

If the trial program is successful, Allman said it will be expanded. But inmates will be available only to employers who are having trouble finding workers.

“I don’t want people thinking they’re taking other people’s jobs,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or On Twitter @MendoReporter.

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