Beekeeping prisoners: Science inside the fence

Blog post written by Michael Nelson, an inmate at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center (posted by Project Manager Jeff Muse as Washington State offenders do not have Internet access):

In the summer of 2009, the Sustainable Prisons Project sponsored beekeeping classes at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center (SCCC) in Aberdeen, Washington. I participated in the program which maintained four beehives inside the prison: three alongside the prison’s vast vegetable garden and one inside an “observation hive” in a commercial, cold-frame greenhouse. The program was remarkable in several respects.

Michael Nelson (center) examines the anatomy of bees during a class at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center. Photo: Doug Raines.

Michael Nelson (center) examines the anatomy of bees during a class at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center. Photo: Doug Raines.

My 11 years of confinement taught me prison’s hostile captor/captive dynamic. Our prisons isolate criminals — not just from the communities in which they’ve committed their crimes, but from nature, and from normal, healthy relationships. The type of “outside the box” thinking that spawned the Sustainable Prisons Project holds great promise for prison reform in ways most free-world people can’t understand. I’ll try to explain.

For two months each Wednesday at noon, entomologist Sam Hapke met with about 10 of us in SCCC’s V Building. On our first day, after some instruction, we went out to inspect the hives. Our initial fear of being stung had a weird affect on us — the “fronts” we put up as prisoners fell away in a sort of humble awe amidst the force of nature the bees represented.

It’s impossible to maintain a “tough guy” facade when handling bees. Pretense falls away in the symbiotic relationship between man and bees — things can go wrong quickly if you’re not on your best behavior. And it did cultivate our best behavior. Without our being told, we picked up on our interdependence with the bee. The larger message of our interdependence in society — which the bee is an important part of — was also immediately apparent, despite our not being told.

To me, there is something folkish about beekeeping. Perhaps my ancestors were among those early colonists who brought Apis melliflora (the “white man’s fly”) to North America. It was almost as if some Jungian collective memory was triggered in me. I felt quite at home dismantling and inspecting hives, engulfed within the swarm of bees whom I trusted somehow not to sting me. And I was never stung, despite my never wearing protective gear. I’m not afraid of being stung anymore.

I am hooked on beekeeping. From my perspective, every other prisoner in the program was affected in a similar way. The value of the program became apparent when I considered what it would be like if more prisoners were participating. You should consider that, too.

I propose a permanent relationship between agricultural researchers and inmates in Washington State. We could call the program “Apicultural Research in Prisons.” Since our civilization is utterly dependent on bees for its agriculture, and since bees are presently threatened by widespread colony collapse disorder, it would benefit us to form such partnerships with university agricultural extension services.

What better place than prisons for this kind of work? The controlled environment of facilities like SCCC lend themselves to reliable statistical research that can help scientists examine our most pressing environmental problems. It’s a natural fit, one that benefits researchers, prisoners and society.

— Michael Nelson, Stafford Creek Corrections Center, August 27, 2009

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