Aquaculture for all

Women's prison dives into fish farming

US - A new tilapia-raising operation is part of an open house at the Wyoming Women's Center state prison. The center has seen $18 million in improvements, but the fish farm is catching most of the attention.

On Aug. 15, the first 7,500 fingerlings -- "little bitty guys," according to Bill Carter, Wyoming Department of Corrections prison industries manager -- arrived here from New Mexico. When inmates submerged the fish bags into 85-degree water, opening them once the bag and tank temperatures matched, the nation's first aquaculture facility based in a women's prison was fully operational.

The facility, which cost $2.1 million, is the biggest centerpiece so far of a statewide effort to provide career-building opportunities for inmates as they prepare to re-enter society, and the workplace, Carter said.

"It's meant the world to them," Carter said. "It's real life. It's what they're going to be doing when they get out of prison."

Thirteen inmates so far have been hired to work at the facility. Each of them went through an interview process similar to what you would expect on the outside, Carter said. To earn a job at the fish farm, the women applied for it, and had to have GEDs or high school diplomas, as well as good math scores, as aquaculture requires frequent and accurate measurements of water quality. A three-person panel interviewed the candidates, who've each immersed themselves in aquaculture since.

"I have never in my life seen a work force as excited as these women in that aquaculture center," Carter said.

They studied videos on the subject before the arrival of the tilapia, take classes and read books about aquaculture.

Over the course of nine months, they will be fed and nurtured and studied and finally shipped to a fish hatchery in North Dakota before they are sold live to markets all over the country and, perhaps, the world. More young fish will come in, nearly 100,000 annually, and cycle out, and some of the state's women prisoners will be responsible for the production.

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