Doing good while doing time: Sustainability in Prisons Project
Convicts and compost, felons and frogs, tattoos and tiny wildflowers. What happens when you connect prisons with nature?
From 2008 to early 2010, I helped launch the Sustainability in Prisons Project with scientist Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, formerly with The Evergreen State College in Washington State, though now heading up the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. It was a life-changing experience, to say the least — for Nalini and me and countless others, including staff members with the Department of Corrections and diverse men and women behind bars, many of them now released. I’m proud to see the program still thriving despite the state’s budget cuts and the inevitable challenges that face any startup. The new team continues to expand and refine initiatives, from raising endangered species for ecological restoration to helping prison facilities reduce their environmental impacts. All innovative, all results-driven, all good.
During my time with the project, we worked in four prisons in the southwestern corner of the state, ranging from minimum to maximum security for male and female populations. Reaching thousands of inmates eager to develop conservation skills — and, I believe, to remake themselves, their relationships with family members, and their future in society as a whole — our team included biologists and green business owners, master composters and recycling experts, and partners with The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Army at Fort Lewis, the nation’s third largest military base.
Simply put, we tried to save tax dollars and natural resources while preparing inmates for life on the outside.
Is it possible? Find out for yourself. Check out the project’s website – it’s loaded with press and multimedia with an inside look at prison life — or enjoy this YouTube video created by my friends at the Department of Corrections. It’s a couple years old now but still hits the mark, plus you can see me inside the Stafford Creek Corrections Center. Looking back, I can’t help but laugh at that moment because my brow was so furrowed with concentration. What you can’t see are the guys facing me as I spoke, dozens of eyes watching, questioning, hoping. Their stares were a powerful distraction.
Life-changing? You bet. For me and, I hope, for them.
Photo: With training from the Sustainability in Prisons Project, Washington State inmates propagate wildflowers for the rare pine-studded prairies at Fort Lewis, located between Tacoma and Olympia. BENJAMIN DRUMMOND