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.