Here, recycling is the name of the game. Copper and aluminum obviously, but also steel, brick and even seemingly worthless nuggets of concrete from demolished buildings find their way to new and productive uses. Grasses are planted to protect critical wetlands near the Chesapeake Bay, and further toward the Appalachian Piedmont, new trees will help protect tributaries of the Potomac River.

Dedicated individuals pick up trash along miles of highway and reclaim historic sites. The mission spans the generations, as well; kids tend raised beds, pick cucumbers and make friends with writhing red worms in rich black soil. And to top it all off, the organization that does all this will soon be maintaining more than 200 acres of solar panels that will, if all goes as promised, effectively double Maryland's output of sun power.


And what is this uber-green society? The Sierra Club? Riverkeepers? No, it's Maryland's state prison system. The image of the stripe-attired inmate chained to an iron ball is rapidly changing.

As prisons enter the 21st Century, the core mission remains imprisonment. Hard time is still hard time. But Maryland Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary Maynard's administration has initiated a "restorative justice" program called Public Safety Works that is designed to teach inmates usable skills while they repay their debt to society in ways that matter. The program has evolved to dovetail with Gov. Martin O'Malley's "Smart, Green and Growing" initiative to take on a decidedly ecological flavor.

Inmates who are in pre-release (a sort of air lock to acclimate them to society) or other low-risk categories are eligible for Mr. Maynard's work crews. On occasion, Mr. Maynard said, inmates do walk away, but usually it's to meet a girlfriend or to answer the siren song of a fast food joint.

An average day in Maryland will see 400 inmates on job sites across the state. For local governments, a ready, willing and cheap workforce is there for the asking. "I tell them to show me their biggest mess and I'll clean it up," Mr. Maynard said. So far, the only snag has been a reluctance of local governments to take advantage of an offer that almost seems too good to be true.

For the price of peanuts (last year the town of Boonsboro put a two-man crew on staff for $12.80 a day), a local jurisdiction can employ considerable manpower that it otherwise could never afford.

And the DOC has shown a taste for projects that contribute to society in ways that go beyond the standard trash gathering and string trimming along the interstates. Prison crews have helped to clean up and stabilize the endangered Anchor of Hope Cemetery on Hooper's Island in Dorchester County and reclaimed decaying veterans' cemeteries across the state. They've planted trees along Antietam Creek, where 23,000 soldiers fell on Sept.17, 1862, and built five Habitat for Humanity homes in Federalsburg.

Williamsport requested a full-time prison labor force, and inmates have performed more than $40,000 worth of work for the town, including restoration of a historic barn, installing public rest rooms and painting the town hall.

In Baltimore, juvenile offenders have learned some lessons in agriculture by tending raised beds of vegetables in the prison courtyard; across the state, inmates plant bay grasses, maintain parks and are more than halfway to their goal of planting 1 million trees.

Under a partnership between the DOC and state Department of Natural Resources, a Southern Maryland crew has worked at the Piney Point Aquaculture Center, putting together 42,000 shell bags and filling them with 24,000 bushels of oyster shells, which were reintroduced to the bay as a habitat for oyster larvae.

Perhaps the inmates' signature project will be demolition of the abandoned House of Correction in Jessup, which was originally to be bulldozed and landfilled at a cost of $10 million. With inmate power and an intense recycling plan, the job will now cost state taxpayers closer to $4.5 million. Copper wires and steel bars will be recycled, 1 million bricks will be reclaimed and crushed concrete will be used for oyster reef substrate.

The icing — or perhaps it is the cake — is that inmates are learning skills that will be in demand upon their release, in areas such as construction, equine care, aquaculture, and lead paint and asbestos abatement.

But, says the public safety department's mission statement, "Public Safety Works isn't just about giving inmates jobs and skills; it's about meaningful projects, paying society back in the restorative justice model that gives inmates and communities alike something truly invaluable."

And building homes for the poor and saving our bay and our history is about as meaningful as you can get.

Tim Rowland is a columnist for the Hagerstown Herald-Mail and author of "Maryland's Appalachian Highlands: Massacres, Moonshine and Mountaineering." This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.