by Callie

Inmates & Aquaponics

Prison gardens have become pretty common, and truth be known, prison farms have been around for centuries. Many state and county correctional systems find growing food and flowers offer rehabilitative benefits for inmates, not to mention teaching them job skills, while the produce helps to keep penal facility operation costs down, and can even supply food banks and local communities with fresh, nutritious food. But recently we’re seeing high tech gardening cropping up  in U.S. correctional facilities.

Rehabilitating Inmates

With economists who work with future planning seeing urban farmer as being a career in high demand, and sustainability becoming a mainstream issue, it makes perfect sense that correctional system programs would start adding aquaponics to inmate education opportunities. Urban farms many times employ people who have recently re-entered society after doing time. Every human needs hope and a purpose. It’s those who have neither that wind up on the wrong side of the law, and releasing unskilled people from jail has proven to be the foundation of repeat offenses in most cases. Teaching inmates aquaponics is definitely a wise approach to equipping them for opportunities on the rise in the career world.

Whether they’re learning to grow food, care for the fish that supply the nutrients to the garden part of the system, or more attuned to the mechanics  and technology involved – these hands-on classes are important to the future. Some counties and states have put together complex work and educational programs that generate consumer market products. Colorado jails and prisons are a beehive of activity in sustainable practices, farming, and indoor aquaponics as of last year. The image above shows the beginning of their indoor aquaponic farm at the Denver County Jail that was started through a partnership with Colorado Aquaponics a few years ago. They seem to have triggered a trend…

Travis County Jail Aquaponics ProgramHaving more temperate weather in Texas allows the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle to operate their aquaponics garden outdoors, though it is beneath a greenhouse frame that can be covered should a cold snap threaten. It’s the first high tech garden in the state in the correctional system. The sheriff began construction last year with a $50,000 grant, and this summer the inmates were enjoying the activity while learning what the technique was all about. (Image: Courtesy of My Statesman)

The food it produces will go into the facility kitchen, along with the harvest from the already existing 3.5 acre vegetable garden. The cooks at the jail have been serving more and more organic and nutritional food in the past couple years in an attempt to provide inmates with a far healthier diet than traditional prison fare does.

While it’s not huge, the aquaponics operation here near Austin has opened windows of opportunity for those working in the program. Both staff and good-behavior residents work on the garden and care for the fish. It’s given some of them hope for a brighter future after release, like Jose Cruz, who hopes the skills and experience will mean getting employment at an aquaponics farm in San Marcos when he gets out.

Pasco County, Florida also has an aquaponics operation in place that gives inmates working in the program a series of graduated steps in learning life skills that will be helpful upon release. There county jail administration planning has incorporated selling to the pubic at area farmers markets, and further agricultural classes in hopes of changing the future to a more positive outcome as inmates are released.

Learning Sustainable Skills

Washington State Penitentiary has a excellent sustainability program in place that includes aquaponics. They’re busy recycling, repairing, and growing organic food, and propagating butterflies. The aquaponics system here was started by an inmate several years ago, and no doubt works well with their vermiculture project.

Last fall they began construction on a large-scale aquaponics operation and tilapia breeding program. The gardens are expansive and fill 3 greenhouses. It’s part of the Sustainability Practice Labs behind their in-house industries of sign making, reclaimed wood and metal work, bee keeping, and more. Sustainable skills will definitely grow in demand in the near future, and aquaponic produce grown in a closed loop system is all part of that movement.

Intro to Career Education

San Francisco County Jail Aquaponics ProgramOne would think that techno gardening savvy California would be the front runner in penal system aquaponics, but they’re not. The first system of its kind in the state was recently installed at San Francisco County Jail #6. (Image: Courtesy of SF Gate)

This program is geared towards readying inmates for jobs after their release. In an environmentally forward-thinking partnership formed between the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, Five Keys Charter High School, Hunters Point Family,
and Los Angeles-based Our Foods a small, highly efficient aquaponics system provides pre-requisite education to the formal course on a college level. It also aims at changing the Bayview community from the inside.

“The Hunters Point Family’s aquaponics program proactively addresses the environmental, socioeconomic, and mental health
issues in our community by engaging our most disenfranchised residents. By training incarcerated individuals, we are creating a pipeline of experts who will return to their communities and share their expertise to train and grow food for their neighbors — and to participate in the economic infrastructure of their community,” says Lena Miller – Founder and Co-Executive Director of the Hunters Point Family non-profit.

Should the inmates participating in the aquaponics program choose, they are prepped to enroll in a paid training course once they are released from jail. For now, they’re learning the ropes with gold fish, and small growing beds.



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Only strangers knock on the door at Callie's house. People who know her don't bother if the sun is shining - they know to look in the garden.