PITTSFIELD, MA -- Far outside the walls of the Berkshire County House of Corrections, past the parking lot full of police cruisers, and nestled against a thick backdrop of deciduous trees, county inmates quietly tend to rows of lettuce in a newly-built Rimol greenhouse.
Housed inside this custom-built Matterhorn is a state-of-the-art aquaponics garden so serene, you might not even realize it’s part of a correctional facility if it weren't for the gardeners' bright yellow jumpsuits.
The greenhouse and garden form the centerpiece of an innovative new community and workforce reentry program designed and supervised by Capt. Robin McGraw, a Deputy Sheriff with the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office. For the small group of high-risk, high-needs inmates who work there, it's their shot at a second chance.
"Those are guys that have multiple charges," McGraw says. "[They] don’t ever qualify to be working outside — especially in the community — or qualify for work release." He added, "Changing their story is a difficult thing to do."
Growing Is Tricky in the Berkshires
The inmates here are short-timers, comparatively speaking, and that creates its own set of problems.
"If you get incarcerated here, you’re usually in jail for about two and a half years," says McGraw. That's too short to go to prison, where a plethora of programs for high-risk offenders can help impart useful skills. But two and a half years is an awfully long time to be separated from society without anyone or anything to help guide you back.
At one point, every correctional facility in Massachusetts had some sort of agriculture program to help inmates transition back into the free world, according to McGraw. However, he adds, "Here in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, it's hard to grow anything more than maybe four months out of the year." The climate and terrain simply pose too big a challenge.
In 2016, a solution materialized when Berkshire County Jail Superintendent Jack Quinn struck up a conversation with fellow air traveler Sam Fleming, the executive director of 100 Gardens, a North Carolina nonprofit devoted to building aquaponics labs in local schools. If the local climate isn't suitable for year-round growing, Quinn reasoned, maybe a greenhouse would do the trick.
If You Build It, They Will Grow
After 20 years as a teacher, coach, and school administrator -- followed by nearly another decade as a paramedic with the Massachusetts State Police -- McGraw was heading several local nonprofits when the Sheriff's office called. Although assigned elsewhere within the department initially, it wasn't long before McGraw found himself in North Carolina, learning everything he could from 100 Gardens about how to set up and run an aquaponics system.
"Well, to be honest with you, I learned a lot of this on the fly," says McGraw. However, once he understood the growing process and what it would take to build an aquaponics greenhouse in the Berkshires, he got to work fundraising. About one year and $650,000 later, he reached out to Rimol to help bring his vision to life.
For the basic design, McGraw went with the Matterhorn, Rimol's top-of-the-line greenhouse series, because it’s the toughest, most rugged structure Rimol makes — plenty strong enough to withstand the load from mountain snow and wind and allow for year-round gardening. Plus, it's endlessly customizable.
McGraw went with the 30-foot width (customers can also choose 20- or 24-foot options) at 60-feet long, stacking two side-by-side to form a spacious 60-by-60 greenhouse with a large 12 ga. steel gutter running between them, which allows easy access to the roof and downspouts.
The 6/12 pitch roof is supported by 4-by-4 columns of 13 ga. galvanized steel and built of trusses and purlins designed to provide extra defense against the often brutal New England snowfall.
Crucially, McGraw's system is completely sealed off; all the air coming into the greenhouse passes through six louvers at the front of the building, which keeps out insects and other wildlife and allows for precise control of the interior climate.
Growing Food For Inmates & The Community
The whole operation costs about $125,000 per year to run and has so far produced over 118,000 heads of lettuce in the year and a half or so it's been operational. About 18,000 of those went to the House of Correction to feed inmates. The other 100,000-plus were donated to the area’s most food-vulnerable residents.
McGraw would like to see it stay that way. "If I can get the money that I need for a sustainable operation," he says, "I will continue to serve the food-vulnerable from our facility." In fact, a strong connection to the surrounding community is one of the main tenets of the project.
"This is also a way to bring us into the community and have created programs, community programs, as well as educational programs for the high schools and colleges," McGraw says, adding that’s why the greenhouse was built well outside the facility's perimeter fence -- so the public can learn there as well.
McGraw Sees a 'Fruitful' Future Ahead
The aquaponics garden at the Berkshire County House of Corrections isn't quite two years old yet, but McGraw is already making plans for the future.
"I think adding another greenhouse—like a high tunnel, where you grow in the soil — would be great," he says. "And honestly, if I buy another greenhouse, I’ll purchase it with Rimol."