Inmates at Cedar Creek Corrections Center working with state-endangered Oregon spotted frogs. (Photo by Benj Drummond.)

Kelli Bush, project manager for Washington state’s Sustainable Prisons Project, works with an unlikely group of conservationists: prison inmates. In collaboration with scientists, students, community groups, and prison staff, inmates at four Washington correctional facilities play an integral part in habitat and species restoration efforts. They raise Oregon spotted frogs (endangered in Washington), Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies, and native prairie plants, rebuilding not only local ecosystems, but their own job skills and confidence at the same time.

Founded in 2008, the project includes an education component — science and sustainability lectures, workshops, and green jobs training — and it promotes sustainable prison operations by connecting prison staff with experts who can help find ways to reduce facilities’ operating cost and resource consumption.

Bush joined the project a year and a half ago after a job doing restoration work for Washington State Parks. Recently, we had a chance to ask her about the power of sustainable prisons.

Q. What’s unique about doing this kind of work with prison inmates?

A. In my previous job with Washington State Parks, we had inmate crews help us with planting and weed control, and I found that I had an opportunity to not just say, “go work on cutting those blackberries,” but to tell them about why they were doing what they were doing and how important it was. I found that they seemed to really enjoy the idea that they were part of a larger effort. So when I saw this opportunity to take this concept much further I thought it would be a wonderful thing to be a part of. It takes a team to deal with these major environmental issues, and we need to look more broadly than the people who have formal scientific education training. [The] incarcerated are typically overlooked as people who don’t have anything to offer. And we found that to be completely false. They have a lot to offer. The inmates are our partners. We couldn’t do it without them.

Q. Can conservation work like this have a rehabilitative effect?

A. It’s a hard thing to measure at this point. We hope maybe we’re emphasizing empathy. When we see some of these inmates interacting or working with raising these frogs, or these really delicate butterflies, they are so careful and nurturing and they know that these lives depend on them, and we feel that must have a positive impact. Ninety-seven percent of inmates are going to be released, and they’re going to be back in our communities. Do we want [prison] to be a place where they just foster more negativity, or do we want them to maybe be inspired by science and sustainability, or be inspired to get more education, or to learn some lessons by nurturing life? To us it seems obvious.

Sustainable Prisons seed sowing lessonInmates learning seed-sowing techniques.Q. The project’s only a few years old, but do you know of any inmates who have been released and gone on to incorporate aspects of what they learned into their lives?

A. We had one inmate who actually worked with Dr. [Nalini Nadkarni, the project's co-founder] on a journal article while he was incarcerated, and they got that published in a scientific journal. When he was released he went on to enter a PhD program where he’s working on microbiology, I believe. So he’s a pretty incredible success. We also have an inmate who worked in a beekeeping program at Cedar Creek [Corrections Center] and was so inspired that when he was released he began his own beekeeping process. He talks about learning lessons through the bees — that he couldn’t be angry around the bees, because they react to that, so in order to be safe he had to be calm and control his anger. And then we just had an inmate released from our frog program — he’s only a few months into his release, but he seems to be doing well, and we recently were able to invite him out to the site where we released frogs back into their native habitat. So that was incredibly rewarding.

Q. Conservation is often associated with compassion and peace, whereas society tends to assume prison inmates are hardened criminals. How does this project reconcile those two concepts?

A. We tend to give [prisoners] lots of labels. The inmate technicians who help us with this work are incredibly good at what they do. One example is that there are four other zoos that also raise the Oregon spotted frog, because it’s a large effort to try and recover that population, but at Cedar Creek they have, every year for three years now, routinely raised the largest frogs. We have the highest survivability rate, and our frogs are raised to maturity in a single season, which no other institution has been able to do. The men at Cedar Creek raising these frogs are not professional scientists … but they are there, with the frogs, full time. And they’ve learned things that they end up sharing with the scientific community.

Q. The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and our criminal justice system is often criticized for being overly punitive and unequal. How does a project like this fit into broader efforts to reform the U.S. prison system?

A. We recognize that there are lots of problems with the justice system, but in our experience, the majority of the people at the Washington Department of Corrections are committed to the same thing that we are. They want to see these [inmates] go on to lead a productive life and not end up back in the system. A lot of people recognize that it’s far better for everyone if the inmates are spending their time doing something that provides them [with] learning [and] job skills. They have a lot more problems with safety for prison staff when folks are sitting idle and they don’t have something positive to do with their time.

Sustainability, conservation, and restoration have become part of the culture at [Washington] Department of Corrections. The leadership has done such a good job of encouraging these kinds of projects that they’re just taking off on their own. They don’t often get many kudos for the hard work that they do. Our hope is that people will start to view prisons and incarcerated individuals differently, [as] part of our community; we can’t just pretend they [don't] exist.

Q. How does the Sustainable Prisons Project contribute to broader efforts to conserve resources and restore ecosystems?

A. A lot of [state prison systems] are already doing things like gardening or composting, and those things are increasing all over the place. As far as conservation and species recovery and restoration efforts, we feel like the sky’s the limit. There are universities or colleges in each state in fairly close proximity to prisons, and there are conservation organizations that need help. And those are the three things that you need in order to make this work take place. We’ve had interest from many states, asking how we do this. One thing we’re really proud of [is] we feel like we’ve really proved that this model works, by showing that inmates can make this kind of contribution. These issues are too big for scientists to solve on their own.