Healing: Prisoners and the Environment

Image courtesy dogwood33.blogspot.comBy Dianne Frazee-Walker

The Sustainability in Prisons Project's (SPP) main objective is to educate prisoners about environmental conservation. The inmates are learning innovative ways to use nature’s resources to save tax-payers money in their own prison backyard. The project involves collaboration between Washington State Department of Corrections, Evergreen State College, inmates, prison staff, scientists, and community members.

Not only does SPP save money and the environment, but it provides prison inmates with a sense of dignity. They learn teamwork and leadership skills by working together on the prison grounds using nature’s resources to sustain the environment. 

Inmates are provided with an opportunity to improve their lives on the inside and the lives of those living outside. The key fringe benefit the prisoners receive is exposure to nature. Most incarcerated individuals are confined inside prison walls and are rarely exposed to the outdoors. Working outside has healing effects on the human psyche, which is what the detainees need when it is time to function outside of prison.

Prisoners learn to cultivate their own food by planting gardens and keeping bees. In 2009, the prison staff and inmates extended the project by successfully raising spotted frogs to replenish the endangered species in the Puget Sound area.

Initiated in 2004, SPP originated from a concern Dan Pacholke, superintendent of Cedar Creek Corrections Center, had about cutting costs at the correctional facility. Pacholke consulted with Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, a forest ecologist at Evergreen State College in Olympia.  Nadkarni recommended beginning with water conservation. Nadkarni referred Pacholke to a hydrologist from Evergreen State College and that is when Cedar Creek Corrections and the state college combined efforts to create the program.   

The first endeavor for saving water in the facility was to install low-flow toilets and water catchment systems. Five years later, the sustainable prison initiative was launched.       

Presently, four out of 15 prisons in Washington State have adopted Sustainable Prison Project concepts into their facilities.  Educators from SPP visit the participating correctional facilities to give lectures and train inmates and staff in techniques for maintaining a sustainable environment inside the prison.

The Sustainable Prison Project has received global exposure from England to Brazil and these countries are interested in incorporating SPP’s principles into their correctional facilities. The eventual goal of SPP is for the program to be fully operating in every Washington State prison.