Our Early Years

In 2003, the Washington State Department of Corrections (WDOC) and The Evergreen State College (TESC) began a unique partnership at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center. Leading to today’s Sustainability in Prisons Project, pilot activities from 2003-07 helped the prison reduce its operating costs and environmental impacts while fostering engagement with nature and conservation among the entire prison community.

Moss-in-Prison Project

Activities got underway when Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, a forest ecologist and Evergreen faculty member, met Dan Pacholke, then superintendent of Cedar Creek Corrections Center. Several Cedar Creek staff, offenders and Evergreen students were recruited to participate in the Moss-in-Prison Project. Using prison facilities as a controlled environment, the project explored how to “farm” mosses for the horticulture trade. Participants sought to determine which species could be cultivated to alleviate pressures of unsustainable moss harvesting in old-growth forests, where fragile epiphyte habitats can take decades to mature. Nadkarni and Pacholke also intended to provide intellectual and emotional stimulation for the inmates, who typically have little or no access to nature but could provide fresh perspectives for ecological research.

Lecture Series and Sustainable Practices

The Moss-in-Prison Project not only yielded significant scientific findings, but also inspired academic and corrections  partners to invite more scientists and sustainability specialists to Cedar Creek. The resulting lecture series included experts in green building, renewable energy, hydrology, wildlife ecology and organic gardening.

The trainings led to compelling projects designed, implemented and managed by prison staff and offenders as part of daily operations at Cedar Creek. Highlights included:

  • A greenhouse and garden located within the prison’s perimeter: Food production peaks at roughly 15,000 lbs. annually, saving more than $17,000 per year on healthy, organic vegetables.
  • Low-tech food composting (including worm culture) to support on-site gardening and landscaping: More than 2,000 pounds of food waste are diverted from landfills each month, saving the prison more than $3,000 annually.
  • Recycling: More than 2,000 lbs. of paper and 4,300 lbs. of cardboard are diverted from landfills each month, yielding an annual savings of $12,000.
  • Beekeeping: Honey offers a tasty addition to the dining hall, and beeswax supports the on-site production of hand lotion.
  • Water catchment tanks and native landscaping: Water-wise, local plants help support a broad array of migratory birds and pollinators such as butterflies.

Success at Cedar Creek inspired ambitions for other facilities. Likewise, the activities led a number of inmates to pursue professional and educational goals after their release such as working at a plant nursery or enrolling in a horticultural program at a local community college. In fact, one inmate coauthored a peer-reviewed paper for an international sustainability journal with Dr. Nadkarni (Ulrich and Nadkarni, 2008). Today, following his release from prison, he is pursuing a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Our Ongoing Evolution

Following the wonderful success of pilot activities, the Sustainability in Prisons Project was formalized with an Interagency Agreement on July 1, 2008. The project expanded into three additional prisons, and the same time the range of programming grew to include science education, conservation biology, sustainable operations, and community contributions in all facilities. This growth represented partnerships with increasingly diverse partners and contributors. It also represented innovation and collaboration, and especially so in the face of budget or staffing challenges. SPP proved itself resilient.

In 2013, SPP celebrated our 10 year anniversary.

For more on the story of SPP, see the TEDx talk from SPP Co-Director Dan Pacholke and SPP Graduate Research Assistant Andrea Martin. For the current shape of SPP, see About us.