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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.

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3 comments

  1. Unknown Says:
  2. Hmmm... count me as dubious. The speed and work ethic required to be a competitive pruner is unbelievable. Labor crews need to be pruning at least 240 linear ft of grape vines per hour per person to justify $12.00 wages. That is going to be very difficult for the average american adult to manage even if they do have a healthy work ethic. If this is being done for the workers benefit, I would have to think their are skills that our institutions can be teaching them that have a higher success rate to allow for a profitable transition into the work force. Also before handing them very sharp pruning shears make sure that these are truly on the path to being reformed... otherwise this is pretty scary.

     
  3. Jeremy Says:
  4. I think you are not looking at the whole picture. We are just not teaching them to prune vines. They will be involved from start to finish on building and developing the whole vineyard. Starting with designing the water system, and layout of the field, dimensions, etc. teaching them the soil aspect and why pH matters to the plant. Watering schedules, constructing the trellis system, planting. Then comes caring for the plants and how to keep them healthy and quality of the fruit. Shoot thinning, leaf, sun exposure..pruning will be one of the last things they learn honestly. They could be more of a farm supervisor. During this in the background the state is teaching them resume building, social skills etc.. all these offenderd will be required a high school diploma or GED and fraction free to work in the field. They all will have 3 years or less on their term and they will be out in the community. I hope i have helped explain this a bit more. If not, feel free to email me and I would welcome any more questions regarding this project.

    Jeremy Petty - wwvines@outlook.com

     
  5. Great idea. I suggest running a parallel program through WWCC wine program that teaches the same things to wine program students. The benefit is having the inmates work along side the WWCC students so they learn some relationship building skills and how to interact with other people. And the other way around, the students can learn that the inmates at the prison are not all hardcore criminals. If anyone can make it work it will be Brent and Wes. I'll be watching.
    Dan Fayette
    Vancouver, WA

     

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