It was January of 1988. Twenty-one year old Mitch Gratz, dressed in blue jeans and a sweater, arrived for his first day of work at the Humboldt County Correctional Facility. Gratz was given a radio, which he slipped in his back pocket, and was sent to work in what’s now known as the “old jail.”
“It was more of like what you’d see in a prison,” Sgt. Gratz said. “You had bars and these big keys.”
Thirty years later, Gratz is now a Sergeant at the Correctional Facility preparing for retirement at the end of this month. Looking back on his three decades at the facility, he admits he never knew he was going to end up working at a jail, rather it was just something he “fell into.”
“It was kind of funny because I didn’t know if I wanted to do this at the start,” Sgt. Gratz said. “I was working for Pacific Lumber when a friend of a friend said you should go up and apply at the jail.”
After a series of testing and an extensive background check, Gratz was one of just three hired in early 1988 as Correctional Officers. Gratz was rapidly promoted in the early years, becoming a Jail Transportation Officer in 1990.
“At that time transportation was so different than it is now,” Gratz said. “Now we have dentists that come in the jail; I had to take everyone out to the dentist. Before the courts consolidated, I had to go to Arcata four days a week and bring inmates to the Arcata court...Garberville, Hoopa.”
Not only was transportation and the layout of the facility different from today, the process of booking and keeping records was much more intricate. Gratz learned to master that system, transferring back to a position in the jail as a Senior Correctional Officer in 1993.
“We had these computers, these DOS systems that had no memory,” Sgt. Gratz said. “Every day you had to hand type rosters (for the jail). If you did a booking, we had these little cards and every case was a new booking. But it never had any memory, so the next time the guy came in, it was a whole new thing.”
Being a quick typer and fast learner, Gratz often found himself booking inmates. He became familiar with court paperwork, thanks to his supervisor Sgt. Leslie Heller, making him the ideal candidate for a team that would make history at the facility. Gratz was assigned to a county IT team overseeing the implementation of a new computer management system which would take jail records into the digital age.
“It was a huge deal,” Gratz said.
The implementation was successful, cutting down hours of paperwork for jail staff. Gratz’s hard work on the project paid off and he was promoted again in 1995 to a highly sought after supervisorial position as a Sergeant. Around that time the Correctional Facility was undergoing another transition. This time, to a new facility and a new style of management.
In those days, the Correctional Facility was using the linear jail model. Linear style jails feature rows of cells with metal bars. This type of jail requires correctional deputies to periodically walk around and check on the inmates. One shortcoming of this model is that deputies cannot maintain constant supervision over every inmate. Essentially, inmates begin to learn that they only need to behave while the deputy is looking at them. This lack of supervision can lead to dangerous situations for deputies and other inmates.
Breaking away from the traditional linear jail model, the facility began to implement direct supervision. The direct supervision model was made to create a safer environment for deputies and inmates. Instead of inmates being locked in cells, direct supervision features an open floor plan where the deputy is in the dorm interacting directly with the inmates. This environment is more normal for inmates and encourages better behavior than the linear jail model.
“The whole direct supervision philosophy was so different,” Gratz said. “Buying into that and going through that whole change over from how an old jail, a linear jail, works to the new jail, was a huge transition for a lot of people and a lot of people didn’t make it; they couldn’t take the changes.”
Gratz held on through the transition, eventually being assigned to his current position as the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program (SWAP) Supervisor. Inmates booked on non-violent charges are offered the opportunity to work on a SWAP team, serving out their sentence one day a week by completing community service labor. SWAP members can work at the Sheriff’s Wood Lot splitting wood for senior citizens, on the Sheriff’s Farm taking care of meat pigs and gardening to provide food for the jail and community, or on other tasks across the county. These program participants are able to live at home and keep their regular jobs while serving out their sentence. SWAP brought a much different environment for Gratz who was now, among other things, in charge of a farm.
“I’m making a lot of decisions on a farm and animals that I wasn’t used to doing,” Gratz said. “Our biggest barn out there, our pig barn, I tore that whole thing down and built a new barn with people that you have on SWAP.”
Despite transitions and challenges, Gratz says it was thirty years well spent.
“I’ve never regretted working here in the jail for the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office,” Gratz said. “I’ve had bad weeks. I’ve had bad days. Everyone does. But I’ll never regret working here.”
Gratz’s last day is set for Dec. 29, 2017 but he won’t be going away any time soon. Gratz plans to work for the Sheriff’s Office as an extra help deputy, assisting in the jail and on the farm a few days a week. In his retirement Gratz plans to travel and to spend time with his two children, Chelsey and Bryce.
Gratz was recognized and commended for his 30 years of service at the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors meeting on Dec. 19, 2017.
“I saw Mitch Gratz’s retirement on here and I just wanted to tell him thank you for all of his years of work,” Fifth District Supervisor Ryan Sunberg said during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting. “He was really awesome to work with and did a great job. I think the Sheriff’s department is really going to miss him. I know that we’re going to miss him. I hope he has an awesome retirement.”
Sheriff William Honsal and everyone at the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office are thankful for Gratz’s many years of service to the community and wish him success in his retirement.