Denver County Jail is growing its own food with an aquaponics system

The city's $3.25 million settlement with Jamal Hunter is just the latest hit the Denver Sheriff's Department has sustained in recent weeks. Between charges that complaints of abuse have been ignored and accusations that guards have been drinking on the job, smuggling in drugs and porn and instructing inmates to beat each other until they have "pumpkin heads," there's little good news coming out of the Denver jail system. But while the controversy grows, the Smith Road facility is growing something else: food.

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According to Colorado Aquaponics' cofounder JD Sawyer, that Denver jail is setting a precedent for progressive environmental reform. Managers there are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by installing a multimillion-dollar solar energy system, and the jail has contracted with Sawyer's company to explore whether through aquaponics it could raise enough lettuce onsite to replace the 250 cases it purchases each month.

Aquaponics systems replicate a natural ecological cycle, blending together aquaculture and hydroponics. Fish live in tanks, the nutrients from their waste are pumped into vegetable beds, and the waste from the plants cycle back into the fish tanks to feed the fish and keep the water clean. "We're trying to create a balanced ecosystem with aquaponics. We're creating a balance between fish and plants," Sawyer says. The system also creates a source of vegetables and protein, though most of the Colorado Aquaponics efforts in other locations have focused on maximizing vegetable production and keeping the number of fish in their systems at levels low enough that the animals don't "get stressed out."

In a facility like Denver County Jail, where there is ample indoor space and a desire to green things, Colorado Aquaponics is offering what it calls a "turnkey solution" to the institution's needs: The jail can grow food indoors.

"A couple years back, I did a feasibility study for the jail," explains Sawyer. "They were interested in converting a 7,000 square-foot building into an aquaponics operation to provide vegetables and fish and not be as reliant on Sysco and Shamrock," two large food distributors that cart goods hundreds of miles.

The jail then commissioned Colorado Aquaponics to install a small, hobby system to give the deputies a better sense of what aquaponics involves. "They are operating that system as a small demonstration to get a feel for how it works. We put that in there and provide support for that. We want to move them toward a larger scale food-production solution," he adds. "Our turnkey solution involves designing the facility, doing the feasibility analysis, understanding what it's going to cost, how many fish and plants we can expect to produce and oversee construction. We provide training for their management and support of their systems to make sure it gets off the ground and running and is successful."

"The inmates would help run it," he continues. "They'd be trained and running the systems and learning green job skills, so when they get back into society, they'll have some of these skills and be employable."

In Cañon City, Colorado Correctional Industries operates a massive fish farm that is designed to offer inmates a chance to learn new skills. Some critics decry it as a modern form of slavery, considering the paltry wages prisons pay inmates; activists have criticized Whole Foods for using "prison tilapia" and selling goat cheese manufactured in similar conditions.

Sawyer argues that what his team is building at the Denver County Jail is not exploitation, it's rehabilitation. "The goal is for them to create green-industry job skills. The jail is different than a correctional facility. The chief said it's a short-term place rather than a long term facility," he notes. "In this jail, these guys seem pretty progressive."

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris

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