Prisoners Behind Bars in Jessup See a Future in Trees
04/16/2013
Capital, The

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The comeback of the American chestnut tree is being planned, in part, behind the bars of a maximum-security prison in Jessup.

In a small greenhouse at the Patuxent Institution, where pansies and forget-me-nots crowd the tables, one row is reserved for hundreds of chestnut seedlings.

Prisoners and biologists hope the seedlings will play a role in the repopulation of a tree nearly erased from the American landscape.

At the same time, prisoners are learning landscaping skills.

“We want them to develop a marketable skill for re-entry,” said Randall Nero, director of Patuxent, a prison that specializes in treating male and female inmates with mental illnesses or substance abuse problems.

Inmates spend six to nine months in the landscaping program, cutting the prison's grass, growing flowers for landscaping the campus, and growing trees for state agencies — and also, on occasion, for outside groups such as The American Chestnut Foundation.

Along the way, the inmates earn Master Gardener certification.

“You learn a credible skill here,” said an inmate from Montgomery County who goes by the name Ms. Bea. Prison officials allowed her to talk to reporters on condition she was identified by only her first name.

Ms. Bea said she has five years left to serve and appreciates the chance to get outside and learn something.

“You don't want to be sitting here doing nothing,” she said.

While most of Patuxent's work programs are for women only or men only — barbering for men, cosmetology for women, for example — landscaping is offered to both genders. They take turns. Right now women are working in the greenhouse and flower beds.

Representatives from The American Chestnut Foundation picked up the first batch of 600 foot-tall seedlings grown by Ms. Bea and other female inmates last week.

The foundation has been working for decades to breed trees resistant to the blight that has virtually wiped out the species.

Eastern forests used to be dominated by chestnut trees. One in four forest trees was a chestnut. Wildlife ate the nuts, and humans harvested the wood for building barns, railroads and homes.

But in the early 1900s, imported Chinese chestnut trees brought with them a fungal disease called blight. While the Chinese trees had grown accustomed to the blight in their native land, the American chestnuts had no way to fight it. Most died off by the 1950s.

A few survivors remain, but most chestnuts die and their stumps throw up shoots of new trees that never live to maturity.

The chestnut foundation has been cross-breeding Chinese and American chestnuts. Half of the seedlings raised at the Patuxent Institution are crossbreeds and half are pure American chestnuts, said Gary Carver, president of the foundation's Maryland chapter.

The pure American chestnuts will be given out to homeowners and tree lovers. Even though the chances are low the trees will survive, the foundation wants to get people involved and concerned about chestnuts.

Carver said the goals of the restoration program are as much educational as ecological, especially because it will likely take many more decades of work before forests can be replanted with chestnuts.