San Francisco County Jail inmate Joseph Herron listens as instructor Tom Bassford explains various water quality tests for their aquaponics project. Tovin Lapan

Working with the technology provides job skills for inmates, but there’s more to it than that.

Dressed in traffic-cone orange, a similar shade to the fish under their care, inmates at the San Francisco County Jail set about their weekly duties: checking for pests, pH levels and the overall welfare of the jail’s pilot aquaponics program, the first of its kind in the state.

With guidance from their instructor, who has been schooling them on everything from plant biology to economics, the inmates check on the roughly 80 goldfish swimming in a 400-gallon blue water tank, and the beds growing jalapeños, berries, basil, rosemary and other plants.

Aquaponics weds aquaculture, or fish farming, with hydroponics, the science of gardening without soil. Water is pumped from a fish tank into plant beds, where bacteria breaks down fish waste into fertilizing nutrients for the plants. The water is then filtered as it passes through the plant beds and cycled back into the fish tank. It’s an emerging technology that offers several benefits over conventional gardening or farming. Aquaponics uses 90 percent less water than conventional growing methods, does not use pesticides, and grows food faster.

Across the country, with a focus on providing job skills and finding operational efficiencies, corrections facilities are installing aquaponics programs and converting conventional gardens to the technology. Jails in Washington state, Colorado, Texas, and Florida have all launched aquaponics programs in just the last few years. Not only are such gardens more efficient, the bigger ones provide food to prison kitchens and, most importantly, training in an emerging field.

The San Francisco pilot program, now on its fourth group of students, launched in August 2015. The inmates spend three days a week in class and two days working in the garden.

Bassford talks to the class while inmate LaQuan Dawes draws water from the fish tank for testing. The inmates spend three days a week in class learning about plant biology and other subjects, and two days working on the garden. (Tovin Lapan)

“It’s not just for people who will go into aquaponics directly. We are teaching them economics, history, business planning, ecology, all through this program,” says instructor Tom Bassford. “I hope some of the guys start their own business, maybe a cafe where they grow some veggies in the back.”

LaQuan Dawes, 26, had never gardened in his life before he was locked up on a robbery charge, but he liked the course so much he enrolled for a second time.

“I never imagined that I would dig in the dirt and mess with this stuff and like it. I’d love to do this when I get out,” Dawes says. “I think this class should be taught to every kid in middle school or high school. It’s most definitely beneficial and eye-opening.”

Dawes is from Hunter’s Point, a neighborhood on San Francisco’s southeast side that has struggled with poverty and crime for decades.

“LaQuan is exactly the type of person we’re targeting,” says Lena Miller, director of development at the neighborhood non-profit Hunter’s Point Family, which helped launch the San Francisco County Jail program.

Miller’s organization recently received a $200,000 grant from the 50 Fund, a philanthropic endeavor of the Super Bowl 50 organizing committee, in order to expand the program. Phase one was the installation of the instructional garden and aquaponics curriculum at the jail. Now, they are moving into phase two of the project: a larger aquaponics facility in Hunter’s Point where released inmates can receive paid internships. Eventually, phase three will include a commercial-scale aquaponics farm in the neighborhood.

Such programs are expanding quickly, and California Department of Corrections officials recently toured the San Francisco site as they explore adding aquaponics to the state’s jails and prisons.

“The thing I’ve found after working in jails for 35 years is any time you give [inmates] work skills, it doesn’t necessarily matter what the job is. If they’re successful, it shows they are trainable, responsible workers,” says San Francisco Sheriff Vicki Hennessy. “Sustainable food systems is certainly a growth industry, but we also anticipate many will translate the skills to other areas.”

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