How A Wine Jelly Store Has Given Former Inmates Purpose, Responsibility, And A Second Chance...

Even after finishing their sentence, an inmate has a long road ahead of them that includes facing readjustment troubles and job insecurity. Luckily, Carolyn Herbert has their backs thanks to her company, Herbert’s Wine Jellies, which employs former inmates and helps them to learn money management, new skills, and make good on their second chance.

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Carolyn Herbert

When an inmate finishes their prison sentencing and reenters the world, they aren’t immediately readjusted within a few days. In fact, learning how to be a part of society again — along with the everyday tasks and responsibilities that come with it — can take months or even years. It doesn’t make it easier for former convicts when the job market can feel like an uphill battle due to it shying away from those with a criminal past.

According to a December 2021 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), of the 73,500 people released from prison in 2010, a shocking third of them — 24,255, or 33% — were unable to find employment throughout the four years following their release. It wasn’t smooth sailing for those who were able to find jobs either, as the study shows former inmates had an average of 3.4 positions throughout the four-year period, indicating a severe lack of stability.

This scenario begs the question of what can be done to ensure former inmates are not only able to adjust and reintegrate into the workforce more easily, finding better job security as they go, but hit the ground running faster as soon as they walk out of their prison block. It just so happens one company may have a solution.

For those who like a bevy of options, Herbert’s Wine Jelly all but has you covered. They tout 16 different non-alcoholic jellies — including mango moscato, apple merlot, lager, and margarita — and also offer seasoning/dip mixes, infused salt and pepper, and premium cocoa mixes. Additionally, the company specializes in weddings and other event favors.

However, those products are much more than just your creative toppings and mixes. No, they represent the creativity and enthusiasm of inmates who were motivated to turn their lives around, both during incarceration and their time as free men. All the employees are either past or current inmates, who have been with the company from the ground up and are major factors in the brand’s products and identity.

“When I would talk to my family member, it would be one of those situations where somebody else [in there] needed something, and it just evolved.”

If you were to meet founder and owner Carolyn Herbert, you wouldn’t be shocked as to why someone like her would undertake this life-changing endeavor of a business that births hope to those in their darkest points. Determined, experienced, and speaking as sweet as her orange pineapple chardonnay, she first began working for a public school division for over 35 years, moving up from teacher to the assistant director of special education. It was there she realized how important support for those struggling with disabilities and mental illnesses was.

“The populations that had the mental health issues — the emotionally disabled — things happened to them later in life that ended up bringing suicides, murder, drugs, or incarceration. I just couldn’t let that go in retirement, so I really had to look at what I thought I needed to do.”

Herbert can also relate personally to mental health and legal issues, as her family member had trouble maintaining a job and was incarcerated. “If he had trouble before he went in, he could have even more trouble when he came out because prison was not what he needed. He needed support in other ways. That’s where this all began. [I was] trying to help somebody that I knew and it just kept growing.”

As for why the main attraction is jelly, Herbert stated she wanted “something unique” with a laugh. “Every Christmas I did something unique for the neighbors.” That innovativeness continued when Herbert moved to Virginia, finding herself within an hour of more than 70 wineries. “Now, what do you do with wine? Well, my mother loves wine. She didn’t drink much of it, but she wanted it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So I had to come up with different ways to give her her wine.”

In order to fill that desire, Herbert started making homemade bread and wine jelly for her 92-year-old mother, eventually bringing the jelly to craft shows. Of course, needing to be in accordance with state laws, Herbert had to bring down the amount of alcohol that was in the product. “We had come up with a proprietary method in order to do that, in order for me to consider sharing it and getting a little bit of money to send to a relative that was incarcerated.”

While the assistance was initially directed toward her family member, Herbert would soon find others in similar circumstances who needed help and guidance. Of course, the inmates needed to pull their weight in order to truly earn that help.

“Long story short, we ended up with five guys in three different places who came up with a product. They’re sitting around talking and coming up with ideas, and we ended up having someone who does peanut butter, we had somebody who came up with different flavors of cocoa, we had seasonings, and aside from the wine jelly, we also have [wine and beer] infused salt and pepper. It has evolved into a business.”

Carolyn Herbert

“Giving anyone a feeling of success makes a difference in improving how amazing our employees become.”

Carolyn Herbert

The ideas were just the beginning of how involved the inmates became. As Herbert noted, they focused on multiple faucets, like approving labels, artwork, and branding, while a cousin she met worked on the graphic design. 

At no point did Herbert ever have the intention of keeping even a smidgen of profits for herself. Instead, she and a chef on the outside would place any income in an envelope and put it aside for the men when they returned home. The fledgling enterprise, however, changed the initial plan. “We ended up saying, ‘When you come home, you can either stay with the business, or you can take your product and go wherever you want.'” In the end, all five men stayed with Herbert.

When it comes to finding potential hirees, Herbert uses referrals from state police, attorneys, and POs. Herbert hires as they grow, which means the more they sell, the more employees they’re able to bring aboard. While she added they haven’t been able to add employees at the current time, the growth can still give further incentive to customers to make an impact in the lives of former convicts.

While Herbert’s Wine Jelly gives those workers a stable job and incoming money, it also presents them with less tangible — yet equally as important — skills and feelings depending on what point the inmates find themselves at.

“While they’re on the inside, they have hope. Most of these people have no hope at all. I ended up with a fanclub in prison. Every time I would go to a [craft] show, they would say, ‘Good luck, I really hope it goes well,’ they would call me after the shows and ask how we did, and so they all got inspired by what was going on. They would hope that other people would be doing the same thing back in their areas when they return home.”

“That’s very important for the mental health inside. I communicated with them, I would tell them what the other people were doing. Everybody still kept up with what was going on, so it gave them something to look forward to while they were on the inside.”

On the outside, meanwhile, Herbert worked to make sure that whatever position former inmates felt the most comfortable in, “that’s what they do.” “I’ve got one that is putting together some of the goods like the hot chocolate and the spices, and he helps a lot with distribution. I have somebody else that loves to cook, so he’s actually cooking in a place near him.”

“I’ve had a couple guys who were there for decades. That’s a mighty long time not to do a budget and not have to worry about that.”

While they’re able to excel in what they enjoy the most, the employees also gain valuable skills — from management to leadership — that more than helps to set them up for the future, regardless of where they land. “The employee that’s doing the distribution, I call him the distribution manager. He only manages himself, but he has to take on the responsibility of what a manager would do. Filling out the reports, filling out things that are then delivered to me on a monthly basis. So they’re learning leadership skills.”

“Everybody is a manager. So if I was to write a referral for them if they wanted to go someplace else, there would be other titles. And I expect them to follow their leadership skills. I help them along, and then [I say], ‘Okay, I think you can take over doing this part,’ and little by little they end up getting 100% of that management responsibility that they eventually need to run their lives, as well as to go further in [whatever they choose].”

In addition, Herbert also aids them by setting them up with a budget and a monthly salary. While those may seem ordinary to us, they’re crucial for helping former inmates adjust better to the outside and ensure they’re financially responsible. “If you get hourly wages, you may spend it and not have money for rent. These guys are used to having a roof over their head and food for years.”

Of course, just like with positions, while Herbert will help them, employees also have a shared duty of managing wisely once they’re paid on the first of every month. “They have to figure out how to maintain it, so they can have enough money for the rest of the month. It’s [like] forced responsibility.”

The operations of Herbert’s Wine Jelly have helped to expand to other programs that too encourage creativity and help to provide financial relief for inmates’ families. One such business came when Herbert started to get frustrated with the lack of reach they were experiencing with the jelly.

“I started to get frustrated, because there were plenty of people that I knew that had mental health issues [and] were incarcerated but could not be part of my business.” So, Herbert went on to create a second platform: ‘Beyond the Fence,’ where works of art prisoners make are able to be sold, generating money for their families and released felons. “We take their artwork — a sketch, cross-stitch, oil, whatever they’ve done — I take a print of it, make 8×10’s, and make cards and sell those.”

“100% of those profits now go to their family. It doesn’t go back to them, but in their small way, they are helping with their families. It gives them that hope and that confidence, and [tells them that despite that] they may be locked up, they can still help.” When the inmates come home, they are then able to continue using Herbert’s platform to sell their works. Herbert added that those who support the idea and positive results of the platform can also contribute. “We have a donation opportunity to help offset our costs of production and sale of these items.”

Carolyn Herbert

“I think that this model has taken guys [and revitalized them]. They have what they need to survive, to take care of their families if they have one, to be themselves [and] be able to readjust.”

Carolyn Herbert

Herbert hopes her work with former and current inmates across multiple services could offer a glimpse at solutions for assisting persons with mental health struggles or troubled pasts. 

“The profits they came home to were [around] $500 to $600. It was easier for them to get new clothes and get a toothbrush that lasts more than a day, and things like that that we don’t think of as the bottom of the hardship. And they are so happy to have a job. They are the best employees ever.”

With testimonies like that, it’s no surprise Herbert — who’s been working with a local county and performing employer support in preparation for a flood of scheduled inmate releases — encourages businesses, both small and large, to take a chance on someone like she did. It just might turn out to be an incredible decision that will give the employee an opportunity to regain so much back, from possessions to self-respect.

“If you’ve been at the bottom, you appreciate going back up the mountain. They’ve had everything stripped from them, and you can’t just hire somebody and treat them like they’re below you. You’ve got to believe in them, and give them something that is going to increase their self-esteem. Success breeds success. If you have no success, you have no self-esteem. I will tell you, they will be your best customer ever. Because they appreciate that.”

To learn more about Herbert’s Wine Jelly — and to purchase your own savory, distinct jellies or mixes while helping to support the employees’ new life directions — you can visit their website by clicking here. There’s also a page for those wishing to buy wholesale and experience hassle-free ordering.