CANON CITY, Colo. — Douglas Jay checks the salinity of water in a giant tank of tilapia swirling in schools of hundreds.
Jay darts from one fiberglass tank to the next in a giant greenhouse, working with enthusiasm rarely found where he lives — in prison.
He understands that taking good care of fish and working hard could never compensate for raping, fatally shooting and throwing 22-year-old Lisa Ann Pekas from his moving car. But for Jay, who has served 22 years and is now working in an innovative Department of Corrections program, raising fish represents a sea change that he hopes will lead to more productive endeavors.
"Considering what I did — I took a life — I'm doing something now that feeds people," Jay said.
The DOC fish program provides tilapia fillets with no hormones to a business that sells thousands of pounds of fish to Whole Foods Market, which then distributes them to 27 stores in the Intermountain West.
The tilapia program gives Jay and nearly 100 other inmates at minimum- security Arrowhead Correctional Center in Canon City something to do for a nominal wage.
Pat Henry, 48, wears surgical gloves as he gently sticks his finger inside the mouth of a fish and coaxes hundreds of eggs out into a bucket.
On the other end of the commercial fish/prison enterprise, Frederick Richardson, 43, of Colorado Springs holds a razor-sharp knife in his hand in a warehouse where everyone must walk through a small pool of antiseptic to kill germs.
The habitual traffic offender cuts the tails and rib cages off fillets as they come out of a machine that slices the skin off the fish.
Richardson, who has three daughters, talks eagerly about the prospect of leaving prison with a skill he could eventually use to land a high-paying job at a Seattle or Alaska fish-processing plant.
"I could make enough money to get back on my feet," he said. "It's something you could really take to the streets and use. It keeps me out of the yard."
The inmates breed the tilapia, feed them soy pellets that Jay says taste like cereal in large tanks built in a prison-industries fabrication shop, then process them in a long assembly line in a large warehouse building.
Inmates sometimes work 12-hour shifts to meet production quotas.
It's a professional system built on trust in which one inmate works a graveyard shift in the greenhouse alone. On the hour, he must sit before a video camera to confirm that he hasn't jumped a fence.
Fish entrails and excrement are carted off to manure piles that are processed.
"Nothing goes to waste," said Steve Smith, director of Colorado Correctional Industries.
Isaac Allen went to prison for selling drugs on Denver streets. Now he packages smoked fish that will be sold in prison canteens throughout Colorado.
"Instead of doing crime, we can do work," Allen said.
He says that when the fish-processing crews achieve certain production quotas, the inmates earn bonuses. They recently earned 30-cent-an-hour bonuses.
Correctional Industries runs the tilapia program without using tax dollars. It is one of myriad prison enterprises that include building enormous fiberglass tanks and goat milking.
Working in the tilapia business teaches inmates a work ethic in a real-world business and keeps them out of trouble, Smith said. If inmates break rules inside the prison, they lose their privilege to work in the program, he added.
Dave Block, who earned a horticulture degree at Michigan State University, runs the greenhouse program, which is also where trout and koi fish are raised.
"It's an organized mess," Block says. "You can't be afraid of doing something you've never tried before."
Block had to make many adjustments, such as adding the right levels of salt to the tanks, before the operation was functional. It takes killing a million fish before you have a great fish farm, he said.Comment on this story
Luke Meinser, regional seafood manager for Whole Foods Market, said the fish fillets produced at the Arrowhead center are top quality. The unusual factory provides Coloradans fresh seafood.
"It's a great program," Meinser said.
Denver Post researcher Barbara Hudson contributed to this report.