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Inmates learn the art of beekeeping at Mendocino County jail

The three men were intent on their task as they stood around a stack of white boxes — beehives — as the insects buzzed around their heads.

Of course, they had on suits and veiled hats protecting them from the swarms as they extracted wooden frames filled with larvae or honey in the 99-degree heat and two of them began learning the basics of beekeeping. But were they afraid at all of being stung?

“There was a moment,” said Adam Beardslee, 47, “when I heard them buzzing in my ears,” and he had to get in touch with his inner calm to stifle his fear. Beardslee was one of two Mendocino County Jail inmates participating in the restart of a project aimed at giving inmates a better sense of responsibility and a chance at learning a vocation.

“I want to stay busy and keep my brain exercising,” said Beardslee, who grew up in Petaluma. “The bee thing really seems like a self-sustaining job.”

Both he and the other inmate, Adam Kester, 35, a Ukiah native with deep family roots, also had tilled a plot of land and planted a variety of vegetables including jalapeños, tomatoes, lemon cucumbers, lettuce, spinach and zucchini, and have been watering and weeding them ever since.

They were learning about beekeeping from Sheriff Matt Kendall, who grew up on a farm in Covelo where he worked with cows, chickens and bees, and believes “when you grow up having to care for something, it gives you a sense of responsibility.”

It was a jovial group, with the sheriff, who heads up the 250-inmate facility, cracking jokes and the inmates chuckling. As they handled the honey, Kester joked “It’s the sweet life at the Mendocino Jail.”

Kester said he is in jail after violating probation after stealing a “bait bike” left out by deputies. He has 2½ months of a 6½-month sentence to go. Beardslee has been in jail for 10 months and has another 10 months to go after he was convicted of selling heroin, he said.

The program, which first began in 2018, restarted June 30 following more than a year off as a result of the pandemic. All inmate services programs, which involve bringing providers to the jail, were put on hold.

But with vaccinations tamping down COVID-19 cases, the jail has begun to ease protocols. Last month Restorative Justice Programs Manager Kate Feigin got the gardening program going and began to figure out a way to restart the beekeeping project.

First, she bugged her husband, Keith, a beekeeper who makes Lovers Lane honey for the Northern California market and sells it at two of his Black Oak Roasters coffeehouse locations. The original is in Ukiah and a Healdsburg coffee shop opened two months ago.

Then she talked to the Santa Rosa-based Unconditional Freedom Project, which works to restore dignity to inmates and others they call “canceled members of society.” Could they help?

Yes, they said. The project donated two hives, and Keith Feigin and Sheriff Kendall installed the bees and posted a photo on Facebook.

Which all led to the recent beekeeping lesson. The only casualty was Beatrice, a mini Australian shepherd therapy puppy, who appeared to be fighting off a bee who stung her paw. She shook it off, though.

“We’re hoping they can learn enough to maintain these hives themselves,” Kate said. Next, she said, she would be assigning books on beekeeping so they would learn how to harvest honey and how to spot disease and treat it.

The honey will be harvested and used in meals for the inmates.

In October 2020, the Unconditional Freedom Project made its focus “turning prisons into monasteries” with a book called “The Art of Soulmaking” starting at a state women’s prison. Their volunteers teach hands-on gardening skills and provide individual mentoring through educational materials and personal correspondence with inmates.

Keith Feigin, who worked for two years as a Mendocino County deputy and first learned beekeeping when he was 13, said “It’s nice to bring back the old practices and give the inmates something to do. Beekeeping is pretty therapeutic.” He noted that the Western honey bees used at the jail “are from a very specific strain of bees bred to be docile” — apis mellifera.

Kate hopes to expand the program to four inmates and eventually to add women. The jail also offers a sustainable construction course, and an inmate recently landed a job as a carpenter’s apprentice.

“As many opportunities that we can offer incarcerated people to do restorative work, the better. Restorative work is from the roots up; it’s healing for them to work with the soil and the animals,” she said. “Also we’re teaching them about regenerative-type agriculture and as we’re working with them, we’re helping them to restore themselves.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kathleen Coates at kathleen.coates@pressdemocrat.com.

Kathleen Coates

Windsor and Cloverdale, The Press Democrat 

As someone who grew up in a small town, I enjoy covering what's happening in Windsor and Cloverdale, which are growing in their own unique ways.  I delve into issues by getting to know people and finding out what’s going on in the community. I also pay attention to animal welfare and other issues that affect Sonoma County.

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