Prisoners could become farmers

By on Thursday, January 31st, 2019 in Local News

Washington State Penitentiary

WALLA WALLA, Washington – If all goes as planned, inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary could be tending to hops and wine grapes from within the fences of the prison in the near future.

Jeremy Petty and his fiancée, Erin Aycock, own Walla Walla Vineyard Management and Walla Walla Hops LLC.  The two have presented a proposal to the Department of Corrections to lease land that would allow inmates to plant, grow and pick grapes and hops as part of a job training program.

“The primary purpose is to educate the inmates on how to work in a vineyard or hops field – to prepare them for re-entry into the workforce,” Aycock said.

While inmates would work in the vineyard during the day, they would take educational classes at night, focusing on soil science, infrastructure development, irrigation pump technology, and harvesting.

According to Aycock, the idea that originated in 2015 consists of leasing 5.2 acres in the portion of the prison that housed the now unused farm area.

“We plan to start out very slow, plant maybe a half to an acre at a time, then gradually grow,” Aycock said.

Inmates would earn Washington State’s minimum wage, which is currently $12 per hour, for their work. That salary would be according to Department of Correction guidelines.

“The fruit the inmates pick will be sold on the open market, but hopefully staying in the local market,” Aycock said. Proceeds would go to WWVM.

There is a considerable amount of work to be done before the project can begin.  Aycock said a third party is conducting a review to see what other businesses within the state do similar work. Then comes a business impact analysis and final clearance for the Revised Code of Washington from the federal level. Finally, a public forum would be scheduled. Aycock said there will be a website for posting public comments. Those comments will be presented during the forum.

According to the DOC, the Washington State Penitentiary has the capacity to house 2.439 male inmates in maximum, close, medium, and minimum custody levels.  The facility offers a variety of academic, work and vocational programs which includes Correctional Industries. The goal of Correctional Industries is to transform lives and increase successful reentry through training and mentoring by maintaining and expanding inmate work training programs which develop marketable job skills, instill and promote positive work ethics, and reduce the tax burden of corrections.