(Photo by Benjamin Drummond) 

Environmental conservation and sustainability are not high on the list of US prison goals. Yet in 2004, the Washington State Department of Corrections and Evergreen State College decided they should be. Under the direction of Nalini Nadkarni, a forest ecologist and Evergreen faculty member, a partnership was formed at Cedar Creek Correction Center in western Washington to help the prison reduce its operating costs and environmental impacts and foster prisoners’ engagement with nature.

The first project explored how to “farm” mosses for the horticulture trade. Participating prisoners analyzed which species could be cultivated to alleviate unsustainable moss harvesting in old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. The Moss-in-Prison Project not only yielded significant scientific findings, it also inspired a lecture series for Cedar Creek prisoners, which has included experts in green building, renewable energy, hydrology, wildlife ecology, and organic gardening. Now the program is producing 15,000 pounds of food annually, tens of thousands of dollars in annual cost savings, and ex-cons who have gone on to work in environmental and conservation jobs.

If that weren’t enough, elements of the program, called the Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP), can be found in all 12 prisons in Washington—and in lockups in Utah, Oregon, California, Maryland, and Ohio. Prisoners there are composting and farming, but they also are involved in a variety of conservation projects, such as rearing endangered animals like Oregon spotted frogs and Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies.

Preliminary research indicates that prisoners who participate in SPP projects have lower rates of re-offending. To get strong data on this and share best practices, SPP received funding from the National Science Foundation, allowing it to host a conference in September on sustainability research in prisons. “The NSF wants us to have a formal network among corrections facilities, academics, and conservations,” says Kelli Bush, project manager of SPP. “The thing about this project is that everyone benefits—prisoners, prison workers, academic researchers, and environmentalists. Plus, the cost is low. The worst thing for prison safety is people sitting idle.”

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