A dozen inmates at the Patuxent Institution in Jessup have been working for months to help bring back the American chestnut tree, and in the process give themselves a bit of a comeback as well.
This week inmates and administrators at the prison handed over 603 chestnut seedlings, grown in a greenhouse on the institute grounds, that they have raised from chestnuts to 12-inch sprouts. The seedlings were accepted by representatives from the American Chestnut Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring the tree species.
The American chestnut once represented nearly a quarter of the nation's hardwood forests — an estimated 4 billion trees in its heyday. But because of a deadly blight, all but a handful of the majestic trees vanished from the landscape during the past century.
One of the American Chestnut Foundation representatives who came to Patuxent on Wednesday was Gary Carver, president of the 300-member, all-volunteer Maryland chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation.
Carver, a physicist and federal government retiree who lives in Urbana, said some of the seedlings will be planted at locations around the state, and the foundation will soon provide Patuxent with another 1,000 chestnuts so that they can start the process anew.
Participating inmates are also earning a master gardener certification under a program run by the University of Maryland Extension.
"We have a symbiotic relationship with these trees," said Bea, an inmate who has been part of the project since the institution started raising chestnut seedlings about a year ago. Her full name could not be released, according to officials at Patuxent.
"The trees benefit from us and we benefit from them," she said. "It's awesome to nurture them and see them grow into beautiful, hardy plants. It makes me very proud."
Randall Nero, director of Patuxent Institution, said the prison's participation in the American chestnut restoration program is part of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services' restorative initiative program. The program supports Gov. Martin O'Malley's Smart, Green and Growing Initiative, mostly by raising and planting trees and oyster spat statewide.
"It fulfills our mission of restoring justice, which means giving the inmates a chance to pay society back in significant ways," Nero said. "Secondarily, it really contributes to providing inmates with skills they can use when they return to the community and the workforce. They are closely supervised, so if they have issues with authority, it also helps them with that."
Mark Vernarelli, public information director for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said inmates from various Maryland correctional facilities have planted more than a million trees across the state over the past three years, including an ambitious reforestation project at Antietam National Battlefield in Washington County.
"I've found that a lot of inmates are really happy to be part of these programs and to have the opportunity to do really meaningful projects," Vernarelli said.
Carver said some of the seedlings grown in Jessup will be returned to the American Chestnut Foundation's research facilities in Virginia. There they will be used in a research project to develop a blight-resistant strain of American chestnut through a process called backcross-breeding, which cross-pollinates American chestnut trees with a blight-resistant Chinese chestnut species.
Over time, the process is repeated again and again using the resulting American-Chinese hybrids. After several years and multiple generations, the resulting hybrids are 94 percent American chestnut but have ideally inherited the Chinese chestnut's blight-resistant genes. The final steps result in an almost pure American Chestnut with blight resistance.
Using Chinese chestnuts in the process is crucial. According to the American Chestnut Foundation's website, http://www.acf.org, that species has coexisted with the deadly blight in Asia for generations and has a natural immunity.
Carver said about 6,000 backcrossed trees are already growing in Maryland, and an encouraging number of them have thus far proved blight-resistant, though testing is ongoing.
For her part, Bea said she'll be happy to continue nurturing the chestnut seedlings and working in Patuxent's greenhouse. It not only provides her with potential work skills, but just as important, a chance to get outdoors and work with nature.
"It's just a joy to be out here and to be able to give something back," she said. "And it's given me a credible skill. I can hopefully go to work at Lowe's or Home Depot eventually, or even use these skills to beautify my own yard."