Work farms are just one of the training options. At Wise Correctional Unit, inmates farm on the grounds and participate in work for community needs. Now, they are also involved in a new pilot program.
Dale Conrad has nearly 30 years experience in the construction field. That work has been put to use at Wise Correctional Unit.
Conrad has about two-and-a-half years left on a five-year prison sentence for grand larceny. He worked to finish building one of six greenhouses at Wise. That is also where he developed a new skill: raising tilapia.
Conrad said he did not know anything about fish when he first started. He said he has used his resources at the prison and literature provided by the farm's manager to learn. He also spends a lot of his time just watching the fish and learning their patterns.
The operation is just in its preliminary stages as a pilot program for the department of corrections.
"I'd probably like to do this after I am released. I think I would like to get into this whether it is for DOC or possibly for an outfit that is already grown and established," Conrad said.
Wise Correctional is one of 20 units state-wide with farms for the Department of Corrections. The farm operations employ more than 600 offenders. Wise is just one of two attempting to raise tilapia.
Farm Manager Pam Shell said, "Everything that we produce on the farm goes to feed offenders across the state."
It was Shell's idea to raise fish as an option for offenders at Wise. Inside a heat-regulated greenhouse, the correctional unit will eventually house 50 tanks. Each tank will hold around 70 fish, which will then be used to subsidize food costs.
"The growth rate of tilapia will allow us to provide fish not only for our population here at Wise Correctional Unit, but also hopefully for the population at Wallens Ridge and Red Onion," Superintendent Fate Fleming said.
The cost of feeding each inmate per day is $2.10. If the production of tilapia works as planned, it will significantly reduce those costs.
Fleming told News 5 this is also another option for offenders coming out of prison. Because of the goal of the DOC is to reduce the number of offenders returning to prison, administrators want to connect offenders with resources available out in the community. Oftentimes, the most important resources are housing and job placement.
Shell said there are opportunities for those leaving prison in the state, "Virginia does have one of the largest indoor tilapia breeding plants in Martinsville."
Farming at the Wise Correctional Unit will include using nutrient rich water from the fish tanks to filter and fertilize the other crops. The crops at the facility are grown in water using aquaponics. Officials believe adding the fish will reduce the amount of chemicals needed to produce the crops.