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Prison tomato program bursts with potential 

Publication date: Friday 23 February 2018

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An innovative horticulture program at Grafton Correctional Centre has yielded over 8 tonnes of cherry tomatoes since it was established six months ago.

With Corrective Services NSW's 13,200 inmates going through around 500kg of cherry tomatoes a day, Corrective Services Industries overseers Vic Fischer and Ben Preston planted over 7,000 cherry tomato plants at the centre to meet demand.

Mr Fischer said that cherry tomatoes are an ideal crop: they have a long season of around 11 months, are suited to Grafton's tropical climate, and are excellent for partnering with premium herbs like basil, which are also being cultivated to improve yield and profit.

"We thought it would be a great way to reduce costs and increase self-sufficiency by supplying our own inmates and others across the state," Mr Fischer said.

"As well as offering inmates a productive way of spending their time it's a fantastic opportunity for them to gain job-ready skills useful for agricultural industries."

Stretching the length of a football field, the crop is planted in boxes built with timber sourced from nearby Glen Innes Correctional Centre and irrigated by its own collected rainwater.

The tomatoes are tended, picked, cleaned, graded and packed by around 100 inmates, and stored in a newly-established cool room before being shipped out.

Already, three other correctional centres are being supplied with inmate-grown tomatoes, with plans to supply over 140 tonnes a year to even more centres across the state.

Beyond these benefits, the program offers even more delectable results. As Education Services Coordinator Bernie Francis pointed out, inmates are seeing horticulture as a career path on release.

So far, Mr Francis said, the program has run two horticulture courses for 15 inmates and now has eight Certificate 2 Nursery Production Traineeships with TAFE NSW.

Now, the program is forming partnerships with local blueberry, cucumber and lettuce farmers, who are among the area's biggest employers, employing over 6,000 people and aiming to employ more after recent growth in Chinese demand.

"Many inmates don't really have an employment history, and this program assists them with learning the behaviours necessary for post-release employment, as well as giving them the qualifications they need to walk out of our gates and into jobs," Mr Francis said.