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The Mendocino Vineyard Where Inmates Pick the Grapes

Clusters of ripe and unripe Pinot noir grapes. (Photo: Olivier Vanpé/Wikimedia Commons)

Justin King spends most of his hours in a cinderblock dormitory room for minimum-security prisoners, sleeping on a metal bunk bed and being constantly monitored by surveillance cameras.

But on a crisp California morning with coastal fog hanging on the hillsides, King, who is serving time for selling methamphetamines, and three of his fellow inmates at the Mendocino County jail huddle together in a 175-acre vineyard to pick plump sangiovese grapes. The only visible difference between the prisoners and the other field workers are the GPS tracking devices wrapped around their ankles.

"Hey dude!" King, 32, called out to his fellow inmate, Meliton Rangel, as King eyed a promising group of clusters wet with dew. "I hit clump city here!"

The men's enthusiasm for grapes with just the right sugar levels and tannins is a variation on the concept of work release, in which inmates deemed low security risks are employed by private companies.

The small coastal town of Mendocino, a popular destination for artists and vacationers alike, is also home to thriving wine and marijuana industries; the county has roughly 550 vineyards and vast acreages of marijuana. Like many of the state's agricultural areas, Mendocino's farmers and vineyard owners face a chronic and sporadic labor shortage, due in part to the federal crackdown on illegal immigration. But in an area of northern California dubbed "the Emerald curtain," the issue is compounded by so-called "trimmigrants"—marijuana harvesters, many from abroad, who flock to the county to trim buds for $25 or more an hour tax-free.

"They're hard workers," Barra says of her new employees, who wear 'civilian' clothes in her magazine-esque vineyard. "They have to meet the same punctuality and performance requirements as everybody else."

The four inmates, all of them convicted felons, are paid by the weight of the grapes they pick, as is the tradition in agriculture. They work in teams of two, racing through rows of russet-leafed vines as soon as grapes fill their pans. "The bigger the grape, the fuller the pan," says King, his curly hair damp with sweat. The men are positioned on opposite sides of a row, snipping stems with purple-stained hands.

The rhythm of fieldwork lends itself to contemplation. "It was plain stupidity," says Bryan Kann, a 44 year-old inmate who has been incarcerated six times, most recently for resisting arrest and violating his probation. "My parents gave me the best of everything. I knew what I was doing was wrong."

The work is notoriously grueling: At first, Rangel, a stiff-legged 37, said he was going to quit. That changed when he received his first paycheck—his first one ever. "This has really helped me out," he says. "It feels very good to work."

On a full day with big bunches on the vines, workers can earn $250 to $350 dollars or roughly $100 for a three-hour day. Each inmate is responsible for reimbursing the county $11 a day for the ankle monitor. The rest goes into a savings account set up by the sheriff's office to assist the men in finding jobs and housing upon release.

This year, only four out of a potential pool of 48 minimum-security offenders made the cut. Those convicted of arson, sexual abuse, domestic violence, or anyone with a restraining order were automatically disqualified. Last year, the program's first, seven applicants were selected for the grape crew, though "one guy was fired for having a mouth," the sheriff tells me.

"Most people in jail have never gotten up at 5 a.m., taken a shower, put on clean clothes, worked for eight hours and then had eight hours sleep," he continues. "We're exposing them to what we believe to be elements of a normal work career. They have to stay active or they don't make money."

Work release programs—typically construction and other jobs that don't involve the public—are "an old idea that is re-emerging," says Joan Petersilia, a Stanford law professor. There was a decades-long lull in the program, Petersilia explains, after convicted Massachusetts felon Willie Horton was released on a weekend furlough in 1986 and proceeded to commit armed robbery, assault, and rape.

Many counties now offer some type of work-release program, with differing models, including stand-alone employment centers. Eric Seleznow, deputy assistant secretary for employment and training with the Department of Labor, says that, in contrast to state prisons, offenders in county jails are typically released back into the local community: some nine to 11 million ex-offenders a year. "County jails are the front line of intervention for folks starting to get into trouble," he says.

That adds up to real savings too: Each inmate costs taxpayers $115 a day, according to Timothy Pearce, the jail commander. "We want to keep them from coming back," Pearce says.

And for the men still doing time, the lush acres of sangiovese grapes are a brief respite from drab green uniforms and visits behind bulletproof glass.

"There's peace of mind out here," King says, stretching out the walk through the fields with his fellow inmates toward the sheriff's van that will take them back to jail.

Welcome to No One’s Watching Week, the time of the year when the readers are away and your tireless editors have run amok. For this week only, Atlas ObscuraNew RepublicPopular MechanicsPacific StandardThe Paris Review, and Mental Floss will be swapping content that is too ​out there​ for any other week in 2015. This article originally appeared in Pacific Standard.