CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A local nonprofit is teaching prisoners aquaculture by growing food and fish in a self-contained system.

A recent report by the North Carolina Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission shows nearly half of inmates end up back behind bars within two years.

The nonprofit, 100 Gardens, said their mission to take the process of aquaponics and turn it to fresh food and future careers.

What You Need To Know

  • Aquaponics combines fish farming with plants. The nutrients from the water with the fish provide a natural fertilizer for the plants, while the plants help purify the water for the fish

  • 100 Gardens is a nonprofit that provides learning opportunities for local schools and prisons through aquaponics

  • The Cabarrus County Correctional Facility currently uses aquaponics to grow its own food 

  • The organization said it already has gardens in 19 schools and the goal is to get to 100

“We can teach through food, whether it be the growing of it or cooking it or selling it or marketing it. It is who we are as a species, it defines who we are. Agriculture is what took us from hunter gatherers to a civilized society," said Sam Fleming, with 100 Gardens.

It's not just prisons they’re introducing aquaponics to. Fleming said they have gardens in at least 19 schools, and the goal is to get to 100.

Aquaponics is an entire food production system that uses fish farming to provide nutrients to grow vegetables.

"The plants use up that fertilizer, cleaning the water back for the fish, and this is how we get the re-use of water over and over again," Fleming said.

Fleming and his business partners built their first prototype in a backyard. Just two months later, as they were working with the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, they began teaching aquaponics in prisons.

"We sold them on the idea that we could change the way that young people think through this process of managing an ecosystem that produces food," Fleming said.

They've already introduced the process to the Cabarrus County Correctional Facility, where they now have a greenhouse with tilapia in tanks and inmates learning how to grow their own food.

According to Fleming, tilapia is the oldest farm fished species in the world. "Humans have been growing tilapia for almost 5,000 years," Fleming said.

As someone who grew up in the area and attended local schools, Fleming said it's a moment of passing the torch, to be able give back through aquaponics.

"In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, they've already donated 300,000 heads of lettuce to every local food bank in their region and they do that as a part of their certification program. So they're getting certified and they're learning community service and they're producing tangible products that improve the health of their community," Fleming said.