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Prisoners raise fish for fine markets

By: ANDREA BROWN
November 23, 2009
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photo - Colorado Dept. of Corrections at Arrowhead inmate Derick Lay held a tilapia that was nearing the size to be harvested.  Whole foods distributes the tilapia and trout grown at the Canon City Facility. Photo by Carol Lawrence, The Gazette
Colorado Dept. of Corrections at Arrowhead inmate Derick Lay held a tilapia that was nearing the size to be harvested. Whole foods distributes the tilapia and trout grown at the Canon City Facility. Photo by Carol Lawrence, The Gazette 

CAÑON CITY • They are born and reared in prison.

Next stop is death row.

Such is the life for thousands of tilapia behind bars at Arrowhead Correctional Center.

Inmates harvest the fish for a vendor partner that supplies Whole Foods stores nationwide.

Signs by tilapia fillets behind the glass seafood counter at Colorado Springs stores state “I’m a local” and list a Cañon City origin, but don’t divulge these are jail bait.

About 95 inmates-turned-fish-farmers earn 60 cents a day, plus bonus. It amounts to a paycheck of about $40 a month.

The fish biz started small six years ago and is now the biggest industry at Arrowhead, a minimum-restrictive facility for offenders convicted of sex and drug/alcohol crimes.

Inmates aren’t fed the tilapia that Whole Foods sells for $9.99 a pound. Prison staff can buy the fish at a discount.

Dave Block, fish manager for Correctional Industries, said the tilapia are raised hormone-free “in water, baking soda and salt.”

“It sounds like a recipe, doesn’t it?”

A recipe for success, so far.

About 100,000 pounds of tilapia are sold every year, a figure Block said will increase significantly when a bigger greenhouse opens in January.

Inside the existing greenhouse, the stages of fish life are played out in long, narrow 12,000-gallon fiberglass tanks made by inmates at a nearby correctional facility.

The process begins in mommy’s mouth.

“I put my finger in their mouth and pull out the eggs,” said Derek Lay, 29, serving 8-to-life.

Fish infancy is spent in hatching tanks that mimic mom’s mouth. From there, the fry progress to bigger and bigger tanks.

It’s a swimmingly nice place to be for a fish. Meals are regular. The water is warm. Relaxing music is piped throughout the building. They don’t live in fear of being eaten ... alive, that is.

“They are not stressed out,” Block said. “They are happy.”

It’s largely a men’s facility. The genetic and breeding process produces 99-percent male fish, which are bigger than the tilapia gals.

Females are relegated to breeding, where they are in service for six months before getting to rest up for a spell in the girls-only tanks. They are tossed out after being bred to the gills. “They are not big enough to fillet,” Block said.

Inmate Lay, incarcerated since he was 18, can relate to the fish.

“They are trapped,” he said. “I kind of feel the same way.”

Call the writer at 636-0253.

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