On the hill next to the parking lot of the Whatcom County courthouse, a crew in orange vests plants peonies, ferns, day lilies, and irises. By next year, there should be a lot more color by the courthouse.
Nearby, a man crosses the street. He walks up to the crew, and to his old supervisor Vicky Abel. He tells her about being “out,” and about his new job – all with a smile.
Abel smiles back. A self-described “princess of positivity,” she has dark hair, a wide smile, and a warm, sincere personality that welcomes people immediately.
Abel is a Green Maintenance Work Crew Supervisor for the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office. The crews themselves are in-custody and out-of-custody participants from Whatcom County Jail’s Work Center. Crews like hers are part of Alternative Corrections and Jail Diversion Programs. Abel and her crew mow lawns, plant flowers, take care of garden beds, and more.
Participants can volunteer to go out and work on community projects under supervision. Crews include greens maintenance, two park crews, litter pickup, salmon enhancement, forestry, and sidewalk and tree well work. Work crews are a way for those in jail to get outside, though it depends on the nature of their charges.
“I’ve had people from all walks of life who come to jail. Things happen to everybody,” Abel says.
Abel starts her day with a crew and a to-do list. They’ve put in chips on the Champion Street parking lot and helped build Star Park in Ferndale. Abel gets her plants by dividing them up from other places in the county.
“There’s a lot of stuff that’s really positive. If these guys are on the crews long enough, it gives them something,” Abel says. “You can come back here with your kids ten years from now and there’ll be a forest.”
As a supervisor, Abel is support staff, but not a police officer. This means that if someone runs away, she has to call 911 or her sergeant. She watches crews closely.
“In 22 years, I’ve never had anybody run away from me,” she says.
The work is not all roses. Abel often keeps an eye out for stashes, like cigarettes. She’s sometimes confronted with people who refuse to work, too. But there’s usually a correctional officer nearby to help.
Abel says she’s only ever been “scared to death” once, when a woman stood up out of her bus seat, walked up to her face, and shouted at her. Others on the bus had “set her up” to get in trouble, telling her that Abel purposely made her do all the work; in reality, she was new, and Abel was teaching her the routine.
“I thought she was just going to knock the [expletive] out of me,” Abel says. “She was a lot younger, and she was a lot madder.”
Abel managed to get a word in and calmed her down. The two went back to Jail Alternatives and talked it out.
“She turned out to be one of the best people on my crew,” Abel says, “one of the friendliest, nicest women.”
Abel started as a jail cook in 1996. When her job was privatized in 2001, she worked with Alternative Corrections, taking out litter pickup crews. After a series of jobs with other crews, she took over with greens maintenance after a supervisor retired.
she worked with Alternative Corrections, taking out litter pickup crews. After a series of jobs with other crews, she took over with greens maintenance after a supervisor retired.
Abel considers it her responsibility to help inmates see something better while they’re with her. She calls her crew the “A Team,” and gives them a chance to get out, get experience, and get something to show for it.
“Even something as simple as running a lawn mower or teaching them to sharpen the blades – any little thing you can do to help these people [who] wouldn’t get the knowledge otherwise, I think that we should help them,” Abel says. She considers herself a “fixer,” and wants to help everyone be better.
One of the most satisfying parts of her job is shaking hands with people on the “outside” that don’t come back into the system – the people who “make it.” Once, on a job along in a creek in Sumas, a forklift came barreling toward her, and an enormous man jumped out.
“He was coming at us,” Abel says. “My guys were starting to come around me. Then he [yells] ‘VICKY! LIFE IS SO GOOD!’ These guys were ready to beat him up if he attacked me, and he’s coming to tell me how good things are!”
Currently, Abel is taking a Master Gardeners Program from Washington State University, where she learns pruning, propagation and more. Having taken over the job recently, she says she has big shoes to fill, and wants to improve. She’s made a few mistakes already, she says – like improperly trimming a magnolia tree with water sprouts.
“I’m taking the classes so that I know more, and so I’m teaching these guys the correct terminology,” she says. “You’re giving back and doing something with these people regardless of where they came from and who they are, and you can give them something that maybe they can use when they get out.”
Working with greens maintenance is the best job she’s ever had, Abel says.
“I tell these guys, when you see me on the street after you get out of jail, wave with all five fingers, because it warms up an old lady’s heart,” she says. “It makes me feel good, because they remember. Even though jail’s a horrible place, they remember I wasn’t so bad.”