PITTSFIELD — Tom Johnson recently stacked green heads of just-harvested lettuce into a box, in what was the latest harvest at the new aquaponics greenhouse at the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction.
It was his second week participating in the office’s new work program for high-risk, high-needs inmates to get ready to reenter the community and workplace. Johnson said he reports to the greenhouse every weekday about 7 a.m., and tends to the aquaponics system for what amounts to about a full workday.
Depending on where they are in the growing cycle, Johnson said, he might be feeding the tilapia swimming in one of several large blue tanks that line two walls of the greenhouse — its waste fertilizes the lettuce — or harvesting one of the multiple types of lettuce grown there, sanitizing the facility or planting and nurturing new seeds.
“I’ve been here long enough to gain a lot of experience; this is something I never even knew about,” said Johnson, who was nearing the end of his sentence. “I look forward to coming here every day, to the point where, the weekends, I’ll be wanting to hurry up and get back.”
Johnson was one of the first inmates who signed up for the program and, after a coronavirus-related delay last month, started putting to work the knowledge he gained about aquaponic agriculture in a class taught by Capt. Robert “Robin” McGraw, a deputy sheriff with the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office.
The aquaponics program is the newest addition to the educational programming offered at the jail. While operational since January, just last month inmates began flexing their green thumbs inside the $500,000 facility situated along the perimeter fence on the jail property.
The idea for the greenhouse was born after Superintendent Jack Quinn, while on an airplane in 2016, sat next to Sam Fleming, the executive director of the 100 Gardens, and the two got to talking, said Sheriff Thomas Bowler. Fleming’s organization runs aquaponics programs in North Carolina.
Quinn told Bowler about their conversation, and the sheriff sent McGraw to North Carolina to meet with Fleming and learn what it takes to get an aquaponics program off the ground. After that, said McGraw, who serves as president of the Berkshire Education and Corrections Services, he embarked on a yearlong fundraising campaign to make the program a reality.
“That was four years ago, and here we are today,” Bowler said. “No correctional facility in the state of Massachusetts has anything like this.”
Private grant funding and donations from local businesses like Unistress, which donated concrete, and Comalli Electric, which offered services at a discount, allowed McGraw to piece together money for the facility, he said. Now that the facility is up and running, the office hopes the state will contribute money to help sustain the prisoner program.
Hundreds of growing tilapia swam in large blue tanks, their waste filtered and used for nitrogen-rich fertilizer for the five to six varieties of lettuce growing at any given time, said aquaponics program director Marco Anastasio.
The facility produces about 900 heads of lettuce each week. It was on pace late last month to surpass 20,000 heads of lettuce donated to charity.
McGraw said they always will donate a portion of the lettuce grown to organizations that serve those in need, and use some of the harvest to feed those incarcerated at the jail.
“These guys teach them how to grow,” McGraw said of Anastasio and correctional officer Jason Turner. “And 45 days after they plant that seed, they hold two heads of lettuce and think, ‘This one is going to feed myself and my brothers in the House of Correction, and this one is going to go to some homeless people who have it harder than me.”
So far, lettuce grown at the facility has been donated to organizations like South Congregational Church, the Berkshire Food Project and the Berkshire United Way. And when those nonprofits come to pick up their bounty, which happens three or four times each week, Bowler said, inmates in the program go down and greet the nonprofit volunteers.
Understanding where the food they grew goes, and by whom it is enjoyed, is a crucial piece of the program, Bowler said. While, ideally, participants would be able to foray their knowledge into a job in the sector after their release, Bowler said the aquaponics facility at the jail is unique to Berkshire County.
“The ideal situation is for these guys to walk out of here and go work in another aquaponics facility, but we don’t have any here,” he said. “But, the one thing they are getting is a good, solid structure and work ethic. They’re all here every single day, on time, and they do their job.”
The aquaponic growing season in the greenhouse is 365 days a year, Bowler said, and the method will only gain prominence because of climate change impacts on farming.
“This is growing in the future right here,” he said, “and we’re getting a jump-start on it.”