PITTSFIELD — Berkshire inmates will soon learn how to grow fresh vegetables toward a fresh start for re-entry into the community and workplace.

The Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction has added a $500,000 aquaponics greenhouse that will help teach high-risk, high-need inmates the math, engineering, technology and science of growing lettuce, basil and other leafy greens, according to Capt. Robert "Robin" McGraw, a deputy sheriff with the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office.

Aquaponics combines the raising of fish — in this case tilapia — and growing plants, with the fish feces used to fertilize the plants in deep water beds.

McGraw, who manages the operation, said the greenhouse is another crucial part of the educational programs in place for decades at the countywide lockup.

"If we're not successful with this, [the inmates] are back on the streets doing drugs and getting in other trouble," he said.

The greenhouse has been operational since January, already producing 6,000 heads of lettuce, which McGraw and several corrections officers have harvested and initially distributed to local food pantries and charities.

"We've had nothing but compliments about the quality and freshness of the lettuce," he said.

The inmates aren't involved yet as they are confined to the house of correction because of the coronavirus pandemic. The greenhouse is located outside the perimeter fence on house of correction property.

Once the 60- by 72-foot greenhouse is certified to provide food to the jail and house of correction, McGraw says the majority of the produce and fish harvested will feed the inmates, with 15 percent going to the needy in the county.

McGraw began developing the greenhouse project five years ago with fundraising through the Berkshire Education and Corrections Service. The nonprofit arm of the house of correction was set up to establish and manage successful programs for inmates. He said several local foundations and business leaders contributed money and in-kind services to the greenhouse project.

He plans to add raised garden beds outside the greenhouse, growing a variety of vegetables. He also wants the public to visit on weekends to learn about aquaponics farming and how the greenhouse program benefits the inmates.

"The sky is the limit on what we can grow here," he said.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com.