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Catfish freed, inmate fish farmer to follow

June 05, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

by Kevin G. Gilbert / staff photographer

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Prison Catfish

Nearly 400 channel catfish picked up Thursday by a Department of Natural Resources truck spent the past year in a large water tank. Now, they are free.

Soon, the man who took care of them during the last 10 months will be too.

James Hooper, a Maryland Correctional Training Center inmate, works for State Use Industries, a program that seeks to give prisoners work experience before they return to society. The prison system operates shops and service centers in 29 industries, including construction, recycling and agriculture.

It not only gives inmates work experience, it provides goods and services to real-world companies and institutions.

The catfish given to the DNR, for instance, will go into the Brownsville, Md., Community Pond and the National Park Service Cushwa Basin in time for children's fishing rodeos this weekend.

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Ed Enamait, rivers and reservoir manager for the DNR, said Thursday was the first time since the Roxbury Correctional Institution Aquaculture project began that the department has taken fish that are old enough to be used in fishing competitions.

The fish were bought from a hatchery in South Carolina about a year ago. Normally,the department takes the fish after about four months and stocks public waters with them, he said.

"It's hard to keep fish this big in the tank," Enamait said. "It's a lot of tender, loving care."

Hooper, 40, said he was interested in the recycling program but went to the aquaculture project at RCI because no slots were available in recycling. He had no experience in the field.

"I never even had any fish when I was a kid," he said.

But Hooper, who has been in prison for 4 1/2 years on a burglary conviction, said he now thinks it is the most interesting job the prison system offers.

"I got attached a lot to those fish over there. I hate to let them go," he said. "In my mind, it's become a competition to keep 'em alive."

Hooper works seven days a week, seven to eight hours a day in the facility, which is in an old barn next to RCI.

Hooper said he feeds the fish twice each day and runs chemical tests on the water, replacing it about every three days.

"You constantly got to watch them. You can't let the water get dirty or bacteria will build up," he said.

Hooper knows from experience the consequences that can result. He said he walked in the barn one morning to find hundreds of dead fish floating at the top of the tank.

State Use Industries started raising fish at RCI in September 1994. Since then, 15 inmates have gone through the program, officials said.

Cliff Benser, SUI's projects administrator, said the aquaculture project started with two tanks that each hold about 500 gallons of water.

"We thought it was a big operation with these two tanks," he said.

In 1996, the program expanded with two larger tanks that hold about 3,500 gallons of water.

Jeff Sollenberger, an SUI employee, supervises the inmates in the aquaculture program, but does not work on weekends and often is not there at times during the week.

So the inmates who are chosen must inspire great trust in prison officials, said Ron Bucher, an RCI spokesman.

"There's no one in here with the inmates at lots of times," he said.

Hooper, who will be released in about a month, said he plans to move to Baltimore County to be with his 6-year-old daughter. He said he will lay hardwood floors to earn a living.

"I'm going to grow up and be a decent father," he said. "This has really taught me a good lesson."

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