A newly proposed program by the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) would allow state penitentiary inmates to work at a Walla Walla vineyard and hopyard. The program would be run in partnership with a local management company, Walla Walla Vineyard Management (WWVM). The goal is to provide inmates with skills that could be used upon release.
“We work to help individuals gain marketable job skills so that, when they are going out into the community, they are able to obtain a living wage job to support their families and to support themselves, so they don’t…recidivate,” Danielle Armbruster, DOC assistant secretary for reentry, said at a press conference on January 29th.
WWVM co-founder Jeremy Petty said he and Wesley Marcum, DOC Correctional Industries private enterprise program manager, have been working on the proposal for the past three years.
“The idea I have is to show them planting all the way up to harvesting,” said Petty. “We’ll plant a little bit each year, every year, so everybody gets the same kind of curriculum.”
The program would eventually also partner with Walla Walla Community College, which works with the prison on various vocational initiatives. Inmates would work in the vineyard during the day and take educational classes at night, focusing on soil science, infrastructure development, irrigation pump technology, and harvesting.
“We have this person with all of these college credits. They are now very sought after. They are very employable,” said Brent Caulk, dean of education at Walla Walla Community College’s Washington State Penitentiary Prison Education Program.
Washington State Penitentiary sits on a 540-acre property in Walla Walla and houses approximately 2,550 inmates, from maximum security to minimum security. Inmates would apply for the program, which would be part of the national Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program. After internal review, they would be interviewed for positions by WWVM staff. The company aims to initially hire between four and six people.
“We want it to be a teaching vineyard and hopyard,” said WWVM co-founder Erin Aycock. “Each year we’ll progressively get bigger.”
For their work, inmates would be paid Washington State’s minimum wage, currently $12 per hour. “We’re paying comparable wage to the labor force within the same [Standard Occupational Code] in the same geographic area as a private enterprise is paying,” said Marcum. A business impact analysis is also being conducted to ensure no workforce is displaced and that the program is not competing unfairly with private enterprise.
The 5.2-acre site where the vineyard/hopyard would be is located within prison grounds but outside main facility walls. Inmates would be under supervision throughout. Grapes and hops produced would subsequently be sold on the open market to Walla Walla Valley’s 100+ wineries, with proceeds going to WWVM.
“It has to be profitable for us,” Petty said. “If it’s not profitable, it’s not going to work.”
If approved, Washington would join Colorado as one of only two states with vineyards farmed by prison inmates. It would be the first hopyard. Beyond additional state and federal reviews, the program would require a public comment period before approval.
“If all the stars aligned, we’re one or two years away,” said Caulk.