The Sustainability in Prisons Project

By Tim Gates, Green the Health Center Intern

The picture below was taken during a tour I was on in 2011 of the Cedar Creek Correctional Center in Washington State. Standing and laughing joyfully with me is the State Commissioner of Public Lands, and the Superintendent of the minimum-security facility. One might ask, “Who could possibly laugh and smile this much in a minimum-security correctional facility, and why are they in a greenhouse?” Well, it has something to do with an amazing program called the, Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP), that started off as a small science and social project, and turned into an amazing success. Currently this statewide effort has implemented some form of the program in all 12 state prisons.


The facility sits on land owned by the state’s Department of Natural Resources, and for the past five years the Department of Corrections has worked in conjunction with other state agencies, and my old alma mater, The Evergreen State College, to help enhance its sustainability by conserving energy and water, limiting and recycling waste and constructing green facilities. The SPP treats the inmates more as collaborators than laborers. They have to apply for the positions, and then get training, and a small wage. Together, they have helped to conserve endangered species and moss, saved tax dollars and natural resources, and also helped offenders rebuild their lives for the benefit of all. 1.


It all began when a professor at Evergreen, Nalini Nadkarni, known as one of the leading world tree canopy specialists, tried to save moss that was being illegally harvested in Washington State temperate rain forests. People harvest the moss from these fragile forests for the floriculture industry to build and sell expensive hanging baskets and arrangements. She was trying to cultivate a type of moss that would grow faster, and would be marketable in order to deter people from illegally removing it. She thought to herself, who has a lot of time to watch moss grow and record the data? Prisoners! And the Sustainability in Prisons Project was born.

What began as a simple science and social project quickly turned into a statewide effort to bring sustainability to prisons. By teaching inmates science skill they became more self-sufficient, gained marketable skills, and decreased recidivism rates. This TED talk is just one of a few where Nalini shares this incredible story of Sustainability in Prisons Project success. 2.


While I toured the facility I saw organic gardens built and cared for by inmates, and nourished by the compost piles that collected all the facilities decomposable waste. There were Tilapia fish being raised in aquaculture for the center’s cafeteria in one of the greenhouses, and they had other programs such as: recycling and waste reduction, vermiculture, rainwater catchment, and beekeeping.  What I believe was one of the most successful and exciting projects was inmates raising endangered species, like the Oregon Spotted Frog, for reintroduction into their natural habitats. Oh, and I forgot to mention, they even grew the crickets to feed the frogs, talk about sustainable. Their Oregon Spotted Frog Hatchery and Reintegration Program has released over 500 frogs in the last three years, with 247 in 2012.

So this is great for sustainability, but what does it do for the inmates? Well, not only does this give marketable skills to the inmates, but the Sustainability in Prisons Project have had impressive statistics so far. According to the Nature magazine blog, “Of the 238 prisoners who attended a single lecture and were later released, only 2 returned to prison within a year — a very, very low rate.” Other projects have also shown lower rates of recidivism. For example, one facility where 78 prisoners were involved with the project, 18 have been released, of which none have returned to prison, and one-third are employed. 1.


The reason I wanted to share this amazing story was to demonstrate the incredible ways sustainability initiatives can develop and influence multiple facets of society. Observing this project in action was truly inspiring and gave me  insights in incorporating sustainable practices into all areas of public policy. I would love to see more programs of this type in prisons throughout the United States, and if we can do it in our prisons, then where’s the limit?


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