WESTOVER – Michael Carey, 28, wasn’t thinking about oysters when he stole a teal Thunderbird for a joy-ride to Ocean City.
But three years later, he and six other inmates at Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover were not only thinking about oysters, they were trying to save them. Through the process, the inmates gained work skills, confidence and a bit of redemption.
More than 100 inmates responded to a flier asking for help building 1,000 oyster cages for Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Marylanders Grow Oysters Project, in which waterfront property owners grow oysters from their piers along the Tred Avon River. Seven inmates were selected.
“I’m from the shore and they said an ‘oyster pot,’ that’s the first I ever heard of it,” said Wayne Thompson, 38, of Kent Island, who said he is in prison for drug possession.
Oysters, whose population has decreased dramatically in Maryland in the last few decades, act as a filter, helping to clean the Chesapeake Bay.
They grow naturally in open water, where baby oysters attach onto larger oysters forming oyster reefs or bars. Young oysters are vulnerable to predation in open waters, but by placing them in cages they have a better chance for survival.
Each cage containing up to 1,000 small oysters can filter up to 100 gallons of water per hour. Once the oysters have matured, they will be placed on a protected sanctuary in the river.
Thompson, Carey and 45-year-old James Cotton, who said he is in prison for possession of a stolen item, all grew up on the Eastern Shore, but none of them had ever cared about oysters, the bay or the environment.
Cotton, who had dumped antifreeze and oil into ditches in the past, said he will now discourage others from polluting.
The Department of Natural Resources delivered the materials in late August and wanted 500 cages by the beginning of September. The original goal was to make 50 cages per day.
Instead, the inmates averaged 100 per day.
The inmates rotated jobs on an assembly line and completed the entire project in 15 working days. On their busiest day, they built close to 200.
One inmate was recently released and the remaining three could not be interviewed because of victim notification issues.
Thompson initially expressed concern over missing two-and-a-half hours of recreation time each day, but after learning about the purpose of the program, he was thankful for the opportunity.
Approximately 3,300 inmates are incarcerated at the institution and officials are always looking for opportunities to engage them in positive ways.
“It’s good for them,” said Mike Stouffer, commissioner of Maryland’s Division of Corrections. “They feel like they’ve done something positive and this keeps their mind off things that could affect the safety of the institution.”
Curious about the outcome, Cotton admitted that it was difficult to let go of something he had worked so hard on.
For Carey, it was an educating experience. He felt proud to be able to give back to the community after having taken so much from it.
Each property owner participating in the Marylanders Grow Oysters Program will take care of four cages filled with young oysters, called spat, for nine to twelve months.
Eastern Correctional Institution was chosen at the suggestion of Gary D. Maynard, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. The program saved the Department of Natural Resources thousands of dollars in labor costs.
“We’re not just a drain on resources in the state,” said Robert Hanke, facility administrator. It is important to get them involved and educate them so that they can see what people outside the correctional system do, Hanke said.
On Oct. 21, students and teachers from Easton High School assisted the Department of Natural Resources and the Oyster Recovery Partnership with filling the cages. Watermen distributed some of the cages by boat to residents along the Tred Avon River.
Approximately 540 cages were distributed to 119 property owners and two marinas. The remaining 460 cages were hung from the pier at The Cooperative Oxford Laboratory and will be distributed when more property owners join the program.
“Now that I know what I did and what it is going to do – to clean up the bay – well, I feel I did a great thing for everybody, not just for myself or for the governor, but for everyone in general that uses the bay and gets their livelihood from the bay,” Cotton said.