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Prison Aquaculture Program

Prison Program Provides Both Training and Tasty Menu Item
PhotoThe following article was published in the Community and Environment section of GAA's June 2003 Global Aquaculture Advocate magazine. It was written by Advocate Associate Editor Susan V. Heerin.

A rare confluence of aquaculture and the criminal justice system is occurring at the Orleans Parish Prison, one of the 10 largest jails in the United States. Located in downtown New Orleans, Louisiana, just three blocks from the famous Superdome, its extensive, inner-city campus is home to some 7,000 inmates. Less predictably, it also houses a state-of-the-art fish farm.
Using a rooftop and the security guards' former football field for its site, this urban facility annually produces 81 mt of tilapia. Not surprisingly, inmates and the farm's product meet in the prison mess hall, where tilapia is featured on the menu twice a month.
"It's a very tasty and nutritious item that we couldn't afford to serve under ordinary circumstances," said Orleans Parish Sheriff Charles C. Foti, who conceived the on-site fish farm and has been the driving force in its implementation.
PhotoBudget Crunch
How the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Criminal Office (OPSCO) got into the fish-farming business has more than a little to do with an expanding inmate population and rising operational costs. "We had to start thinking creatively," Foti said of the budget dilemma, "and one area we looked at was how to lower food costs." A staggering 7 million meals are served annually at the prison at a cost of U.S. $9 million.
Fate brought Foti and aquaculture together in 1998, when he attended a criminal justice conference in Florida, USA. Coincidentally, the U.S. chapter of the World Aquaculture Society (WAS) was holding its annual meeting at the same hotel the justice conference used.
Foti's personal curiosity in aquaculture drew him to the WAS exhibits, and it wasn't long before he was talking to industry leaders and experts, a number of whom were from his home state of Louisiana. It was here that he learned about tilapia farming and got the idea for building a farm at the Orleans Parish Prison.
Research and Development
Foti considered farming tilapia "because they are a hardy, disease-resistant fish," he said, adding that they can survive in water with low oxygen levels and a wide range of salinity and water temperature. They have been successfully farmed in Louisiana for over 10 years.
Over the next year, consultants from local universities, commercial fish farms, vendors, and state and federal fishery agencies were enlisted by Foti and his team to help determine the project's biological, engineering, and fiscal feasibility. "No one ever turned us down when we asked for help," Foti said.
Construction began in 2000 under the supervision of Project Director Sgt. Wayne Watzke, an 11-year OPSCO employee who has been with the project since its inception. Within the year, Watzke and his team of 20 inmates completed the facility's 12 greenhouse enclosures. Ten of these were designated for the fish farm and two for an experimental hydroponics component.
PhotoRecirculating System
The fish farm facility uses water from the New Orleans municipal system. Mindful of conservation and Louisiana laws regulating discharge, it is designed as a green-water, 100% recirculating system using bead filter technology. The 150 l/day discharge is used to provide nutrients to the hydroponic vegetable system associated with the project.
Production System
The farm purchases most of its fingerlings from Til-Tech Aquafarms in nearby Robert, Louisiana. The Til-Tech broodstock system uses YY "super males," which are not genetically modified, that produce only male offspring. The prison farm also has a small hatchery that produces a limited number of fingerlings.
The fingerlings spend two to three weeks in fry trays before they are transferred to 1,890-l intermediate growout tanks. From there, they are raised to harvest size in 40-m polyurethane-lined growout raceways that measure 23.2 x 4.9 x 1.5 m and hold 125 m3.
Stocking density is 30-60 g fish/l. Aeration is provided by 5-hp blowers that feed air stones in each tank. An automatic feeding system dispenses 35%-protein, floating pelleted feed every two hours, and the resulting feed-conversion ratio is 2:1.
It takes six to seven months from hatchery to harvest to produce 450- to 680-g fish. Raceways are harvested daily on a rotating basis with seine nets to capture the larger fish, which are then graded. Production totals approximately 68 kg/day. The fish are filleted daily by inmates and frozen in the prison's new blast freezer.
Now that the project is established and with no ongoing labor costs, the farm produces tilapia at one-third of the market price, or about U.S. $1.50/kg of fish. This translates into a welcome savings of approximately U.S. $80,000/year.
Ten to 20 inmates operate the entire project from stocking through processing. Theirs are coveted positions that are assigned through a competitive selection system open only to inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes. Their tasks include cleaning tanks and greenhouses, feeding and monitoring the fish, harvesting, grading, filleting, and freezing.
"The inmates become very knowledgeable in fish farming and processing," said Watzke, who trains and supervises all project personnel. "These are valuable skills they can use when they are released." An additional part-time employee hired through OPCSO's Seniors Can program is in charge of monitoring and analyzing the project's water quality on a daily basis.
PhotoHydroponic Component
A 870-m2 enclosure located on the roof of the Community Correctional Center Headquarters houses the hydroponics operation. Eye-catching rows of bright-green bib lettuce dominate a large section of the greenhouse.
"We currently supply the kitchen with 500 heads of lettuce a week," Watzke said. The project has the potential to increase to 2,900 heads when it moves into full production. Tomatoes and cucumbers are also being grown, as well as the herbs mint and basil, and cutting flowers.
Construction is in full swing on a new addition, which will enlarge the existing facility by 50%. It will also have the added distinction of providing pure water from its own well. Tilapia will be raised in two of the enclosures, increasing current production by 10%. The rest of the facility will be devoted to hydroponically producing large amounts of vegetables, including okra, tomatoes, and cucumbers.
OPSCO is no stranger to innovative programs that benefit inmates and contribute to the community at large. Subscribing to the theory that "what goes around comes around," the administration demonstrates its commitment by generously sharing its experiences, resources, facility, and the fruits of the tilapia farm. For example, if you need a fish fry concession for a good cause such as the March of Dimes or Orleans East Renaissance, OPSCO can be found front and center.
"The farm is also a favorite field trip for metro schools, whose students have never seen agriculture in any form," Watzke said. He added that those in the prison program have built complete farm systems for two schools, one of which serves special-needs students. The farm also serves as a model project for other prisons.
The partnership between the aquaculture industry and OPSCO has impacted the public and private sectors in a very positive way. The effect of this nontraditional relationship manifests itself not only in reduced costs for public services, but improvement in the quality of those services, as well. These benefits are passed on to the prison, its inmates, and the community at large. In the words of Sheriff Foti: "Anything is possible. You just have to translate an idea into action."