From Parks to Prisons

After six seasons as a ranger in the National Parks and Forests, and three years in graduate school, I joined the Sustainable Prisons Project team, as the interim project manager, back in March.  Over the past few months I’ve managed the project largely from the sidelines, from my keyboard and telephone.  I’ve had a few ventures to the prisons we’re active in.  After one of my visits, I returned to a staff meeting and frankly I begged to be included on the lecture schedule.

This week I had the fortune of presenting talks on bear biology both at Washington Corrections Center for Women and McNeil Island Corrections Center.  Although I’ve presented many an evening program in my days as a park ranger, and I’ve talked with a lot of different audiences, presenting in a prison is a unique experience.

The first challenge in preparing was to decide on my topic.  As a park ranger I’ve studied volcanoes, bears, caves, marine mammals, and other subjects.  Being in the Northwest, a landscape of mountains and public lands, bears seemed to be a perfect topic.  The next challenge was to decide which aspect of bears the talk should focus on. There are just too many options!  Rather than focusing on one subject I hoped to show offenders that you can study something seemingly simple, an animal such as the bear, from many perspectives.  I crammed basic bear biology, ecosystem ecology, conservation, and my favorite nature literature that has focused on bears, into 50 PowerPoint slides, and hoped for the best.  An ambitious lecture indeed, but I’ve been consistently impressed by how much information offenders eagerly and ambitiously absorb.

Last Wednesday, at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, I found an enthusiastic audience of about 30 women.  They were particularly interested to understand the life cycles of bears, and the ways that humans interact with bears.  My stories of daily life in Katmai National Park and Preserve, when I was a ranger, and how those stories relate to bear biology were hits.

On Thursday, after a quick tour of McNeil Island, our DOC staff escort led our staff to the visiting room for the lecture.  We scrambled to set up the room for the 90 offenders who signed up for the lecture, and I ticked through my PowerPoint slides, hoping I had enough material to keep the offenders occupied and engaged for nearly 90 minutes.  Quickly I realized I had no reason to worry about time, as within five minutes, offenders hands were raised as they asked intriguing and creative questions about bear foods, life cycles, biology, and the implications of climate change and habitat fragmentation.  I was floored by the depth and intelligence of the questions I was asked.  A few offenders had very good and valid ideas about how to recover imperiled brown bear populations in the lower-48.  If I knew how good the questions would be, I probably would have read just a few more scientific articles before the lecture!

As our team sat on the boat venturing back to the mainland (McNeil Island Corrections Center is indeed on an island as the name implies, with the prison operating ferry boats for staff and visitors), I found myself reflecting.   For six seasons I talked about bears, volcanoes, caves, and wildlife around campfires and amidst wild land.  These days I find myself behind numerous gates and fences presenting to offenders, and yet the offenders still manage to deeply appreciate nature and science, even from a distance.  Although it’s easy to miss the campfires and hikes of working in our National Parks, I’m developing a deep appreciation for interacting with offenders. Their deep intellect and curiosity persists, even as they serve (often long) sentences for crimes that are painful to think about. 

Our next staff meeting is on Tuesday and I think I’ll probably ask to speak at another prison.  I really appreciate the ideas that offenders brought forth, and I hope they continue to ask questions that send me to the books and journals seeking answers.

2 Comments:

Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.