The Community Corrections Work Program launched in June, and since then, some 50 offenders have participated, Napa County Department of Corrections Lt. Teresa Folster said.
A chain gang is a group of prisoners chained together to perform menial or physically challenging work, like mining or timber collecting, as a form of punishment, and the new Napa County program is similar, with offenders cleaning up roadways and doing other tasks, Folster said. The program, funded by $120,000 in state money meant to help the county implement the 2011 Public Safety Realignment Act, not only performs a needed function, it helps the county keep jail beds free for more dangerous criminals.
"When people are coming out of jail, with a future hearing date or whatever, we assess them for appropriateness for an alternate work program because public safety is the key to all of that," Folster said. "It's been roadside cleanup mostly, but also we did some clean-up of the fairgrounds after the Town and Country Fair and some weed abatement at a county corp yard in Yountville."
A a recent program participant, a 26-year-old forklift driver named Caesar, said he's grateful for the opportunity to stay out of jail.
"I think it's a good idea," Caesar said of the program. "It helps the community, by cleaning up, it keeps people from losing their jobs -- not too many employers will hold your job if you go to jail for three months or six months -- and it separates the low-level offenders from the high-level ones; gang members and stuff. Who wants to be locked up 24 hours a day, lose your job and be with people who really don't care?"
Typically, those approved for the new program are misdemeanor, non-violent offenders like drunk drivers, or petty thieves, with sentences of 60 days or less, though their entire criminal history is taken into account, and a violent history is a disqualifier, she said.
"It's an opportunity to stay out of custody and complete their sanctions," Folster said. "But there are safety factors involved. We need someone who can follow rules. And there's always an officer out supervising."
But, participants are not restrained in any way, and their guard is unarmed, she said.
"They sign in, get a safety talk, check back in at the end of the day and then are free to go home," Folster said. "In the chain gangs, if I understand it, they were people in custody, taken out to work and returned to custody, and these people are not. They come from home, do their work, from about 7 a.m. to about 2 p.m., and then go home."
The offenders choose to join weekday or weekend groups. There is a six-offender maximum per group. There have been no women involved, so far, since making this program available for female offenders would require training a female guard, and having enough female potential participants, Folster said. But, the program is new, and this may happen in the future, she said.
The non-serious, non-violent offenders check in at the start and again at the end of the work day, and account for all their equipment," she said.
Unlike what most of us picture when we think of prison work crews, there are no striped suits, either, and conditions are a far cry cushier than those depicted in films like Cool Hand Luke and The Defiant Ones.
"They wear Day-Glo safety gear, work gloves and hard hats, provided by Caltrans, and we provide them a lunch," Folster said. A van follows the group, towing a portable toilet, she said.
From Caltrans point of view, the program seems to be working well, with no one complaining of any problems, spokesman Adam Priest said.
"Sometimes people get the idea that these are hardened criminals, but they're not," he said. "They are low level offenders picking up litter."
So far, besides keeping these offenders out of jail, the program has been effective in clearing some areas of trash, he said.
Caltrans would be open to considering expanding the program into other counties, if those counties' officials suggest it, Priest sassed.
"It's generally a situation worked out between Caltrans and local communities," he said. "Each area evaluates (the idea) once it's brought to the table."
The original chain gang system existed primarily in the South, and by 1955 had been phased out nationwide, with Georgia being the last state to abandon the practice, historical websites say. There was a brief resurgence in the 1990s in some states, they say.
In Napa County's new version, which is based in part on a similar partnership between Caltrans and Humboldt County, Napa County's corrections department partnered with Caltrans to use non-violent, minor offenders to clean up Napa County highways; offering a sentencing alternative to County Jail, officials said.
John Allen of Vallejo's Fighting Back Partnership, who ran that agency's now-defunct Solano County parolee reentry program, called the Napa program "pretty amazing."
"Basically, you don't have to do any time, so it's a pretty sweet deal for these guys," he said. "I think it's a great idea. An excellent way of utilizing what you have at hand, of making lemonade from the lemon called Realignment. It frees up bed space and benefits someone who could lose their employment if they get locked up for an extended period. And the community benefits from the free labor and it beautifies the roadsides."
Contra Costa County has a creek-cleaning flood control crew made up of inmates with no "rabbits" or escape attempts in their history, Allen said.
But, Napa's program is different.
"It's way cool," he said. "That's really thinking outside the box and making things work."
Allen said he thinks one especially forward-thinking aspect of the new program is the way its design can help keep a low-level offender's life from spiraling out of control. Even a several-month-long jail sentence can cost someone their job, their home and/or their transportation, creating a much worse life situation than they started with. These situations can wind up costing taxpayers even more money in housing, food stamps and other subsidies, than the offender's original arrest, trial, conviction and incarceration did.
Solano County is meeting the Realignment challenge by building a new jail, and creating day reporting centers -- now being called Centers for Positive Change -- to provide services to offenders who would have been on parole but instead have been turned over to the county for supervision, Allen said.
Napa County is also hoping to build a new jail, on land near the Syar Industries quarry, Napa Valley Community College and the Napa State Hospital, said Liz Habkirk, management analyst for Napa County.
Part of the beauty of the plan is that the state is footing the bill.
Napa County is expecting $2.9 million in Realignment revenue from the state, Habkirk said. The revenue is received by the county into a special revenue fund where it is held until expenditures are made, she said. Napa County is using about $120,000 of Realignment funding for staffing, supplies and transportation for the ongoing program, she said.
"Residents' feedback about the roads was very negative before the program; there was a lot of concern over the litter on the roads, and I think that's improving," she said. "It has concentrated on the most difficult areas, mostly along Highway 29."
This is one of several programs Napa County officials have implemented since Realignment came to pass, meant to manage the inmate population and benefit the community at large, Habkirk said.
Each California county has had a similar partnership since 2011 with the advent of Realignment, though Napa County has had something similar since 2004, Habkirk said.
The size of the caseloads coming to counties based on Realignment, are among the factors determining the amount of funding each gets. So is the various counties' populations.
The new rules extend the amount of time an inmate can be sentenced to spend in the county jail, which used to house convicted offenders for no more than a couple of years.
That has drastically changed.
"Eight years is the longest sentence Napa County has experienced in the County Jail, but some counties have seen 20 year sentences, whereas the maximum sentence in County used to be, like, three years," Habkirk said. "I think this is a program, among others, to address and manage the inmate populations and provide them with programs and other things to reduce recidivism rates and improve public safety over all."
The goal is for the program to expand to include other community service projects, like clearing brush, painting public areas, or filling other needs for other Napa County agencies and nonprofit organizations who request it, Folster said.
Agencies that request crews must provide all materials for the project, and a contact person for the project's duration. Applications and instructions can be downloaded from the Napa County website at www.countyofnapa.org, under Departments - Corrections.