BALTIMORE (WJZ)– Heat, mosquitoes and aching backs. That’s what it’s taking to restore Poplar Island, which nearly vanished from the bay.

Alex DeMetrick reports, for prison inmates, that hard work is still better than doing hard time.

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Not that long ago, Poplar Island was in pieces. None of them big enough to support a dock like this.

DeMetrick: “How small did this island get and how big is it now?”

“Back in 1993 we did a survey, the Army Corps did a survey and found Poplar was down to about three to five acres in size.” said Megan Difatta, Maryland Environmental Services. “Now we are back up to 1,140 acres.”

That was Poplar’s original size back in the 1800’s, but steady erosion from waves and wind all but destroyed it.

It was built back up with dredging material to keep shipping channels open to Baltimore’s port. The work now is turning that material into wetlands, a job prison inmates have been helping to do for the past five years.

Hands on, one by one, they are currently planting nearly 40,000 wetland grass plants, all of them raised by other inmates behind prison walls. The work is purely voluntary. Heat, humidity, and mosquitoes come with the job. That and a chance to get outside.

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“I would say it’s better because we get a couple of hours out of the building during the day, you know,” said Jermaine Dupont, inmate.

DeMetrick: “Even though it’s hot and it’s dirty and you’ve got to bend over a lot, is it still better?”

“Hey, we men. We supposed to get our hands dirty. For real, for real,” Dvaugnh Miller says.

“They’re working the first nine to five’s that they have, and that decreases the idleness in the institution, and it also helps prepare them for life when they are released,” said Ashley Lohn, Maryland Correctional Enterprises.

The pay for this work is $5.25 a day. That’s not a lot, but the work is about more than money.

“It gives you something to do, and you know it’s good for the earth. God created the world so we’re just helping out,” Dupont said.

The plants are the web that will hold the wetland together. In a few years it will look like other sections of Poplar Island where work is done, and what was lost, reclaimed.

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Plans to increase poplar island by another 500 acres and complete restoration, will take until 2043.