Clifton Wilson, an inmate at the state's Eastern Pre-Release Unit, spent last week in the great outdoors, relocating oysters from cages on private piers near Thomas Point on the Chesapeake Bay to a sanctuary in nearby Glebe Bay.
To the North East resident, it was a throwback to growing up near waters teeming with wildlife.
For state officials eager to help rebuild the oyster population, Wilson's work was an example of getting people involved in the Marylanders Grow Oysters program. Launched by Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2008, the program allows people from all walks of life to nurture oysters from infancy and then set them in waters closed to harvesting.
More than 1,000 waterfront property owners grow oysters in cages suspended from their piers and immersed in shallow waters. The cages are also made by inmates, and on Thursday, a few from the Eastern Pre-Release Unit took part in pulling dozens of the mud-covered cages from the waters.
"I was born on the water. My grandfather's house is like a museum down in North East. When I was a kid, there was everything out on the water — oysters, clams and fish," said Wilson, 59, on Thursday. "Now it's getting really bad, depleted.
"To me, it's like doing something for my grandfather, replenishing."
Inmate Maris Nesbitt, 44, originally from Greenville, S.C., said, "It's exciting to do something for the community and to get out and enjoy the weather and see different sites."
The Marylanders Grow Oysters program is run by the state Department of Natural Resources, which partners with local organizations. On Thursday, officials from the South River Federation teamed up with the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services for the project.
John Rowley, public safety works coordinator for the department, said that to participate, the inmate crews complete courses and programs and must be noted for good behavior.
He said the inmates are within a year of release from prison and have been prepared to seek employment once their terms are complete.
"The more good work we do in the community with nonprofits that don't have the resources to get things done, the more they talk to other people about how hard the inmate crews work and how polite they are and how much they're able to accomplish with them," Rowley said.
Chris Judy, manager of the Marylanders Grow Oysters program, said that about 7,500 cages are growing oysters underwater.
South River Federation project coordinator Jennifer Carr said that dozens of private homeowners accommodate the oyster cages along the South River. Homeowners with boats relocate the oysters themselves, while others take advantage of drop-off dates.
Some homeowners have scores of cages and rely on the federation to assist with relocation, she said. All of the work bolsters efforts to replenish underwater wildlife, she said.
"Oyster restoration is a very slow process. But this program is great opportunity to boost local populations and specific populations," Carr said.
"All the oysters we collect in the South River go out to only the Glebe Bay sanctuary, so we're concentrating our efforts in that one area, and we are seeing the oysters are naturally spawning in that area."