Inmates Restore Prairie, Make Video to Teach Others

By Graduate Research Associate Carl Elliott

The end of the growing season brings a lot of clean up and preparation for the Sustainable Prisons Project.  This year’s native prairie plants, raised in conjunction with offenders at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, are ready to be shipped off to their permanent homes. While some of the plants will be sent to Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM), others are being distributed across various restoration sites around the south Puget Sound prairie landscape. Many are being planted to enhance habitat sites for Taylor’s (Whulge) checkerspot (Euphydryas editha taylori) butterflies.

Delivery and installation of the 173,336 prairie plants began a few weeks ago and will continue through early spring 2011. For all the partners involved in this fantastic restoration project, this is a great accomplishment. Together we have increased the amount of plants produced by 70% compared to 2009.

Offenders at SCCC sort prairie plant seeds.

Reaching the delivery and planting phase  is the result of a lot of hard work. One of our biggest challenges has been working with wild collected seed and recalcitrant or difficult germination strategies. The various species of native prairie seeds are sown into yellow tubes or cells, then stored in larger trays. The total number of cells sown by the offenders was 338,485 with 2 to 6 seed sown per cell.  In the end, approximately 5o% of the cells contained plants.  This low fill rate may be caused by the quality of the seed material, the low viability rate of the seed, or the variability in the dormancy to germination process.  The prairie plant restoration project at Stafford Creek Corrections Center is an evolving process – there still a lot to learn about how to best grow these native prairie plants.  Our cooperators at The Nature Conservancy are working every season to improve seed quality through better collection, threshing, and processing techniques.

Offenders raise thousands of prairie plants each year.

Another factor in the low success rate per cell may be human error. Working with so many plants is just plain difficult sometimes. However, with time and experience the tasks become easier and more expertly accomplished. The current crew of offenders has worked diligently this summer to hone their skills and improve the efficiency of the nursery project while also improving morale and camaraderie. This effort shows in the number and quality of plants produced. They will also be able to help train and pass on these skills to offenders in the future, which will add to the success of the project.

Part of mastering any skill is the ability to teach it to others. The process of teaching a skill causes us to look more closely than we usually do to the mechanics of how we perform a task. Work conditions in a corrections center lead to frequent turn-over in the offender employees. Some sort of training tool was needed to get new offender employees up to speed and give them an understanding of the context and purpose of the nursery project.  The well-trained and skilled crew at SCCC recently helped create a video to serve as a training tool for new offenders working on the project.  Over the course of a few weeks, offenders practiced developing a script around their particular expertise in the production process. We decided to focus on five skills: 1) preparing soil and fertilizer in the cell trays, 2) sowing the seed of three species with differing seed sizes, 3) covering seed with soil or gravel grit, 4) record keeping  and 5) watering, weeding and cultivation skills.

Filming at Stafford Creek Corrections Center

The Center for Creative and Applied Media (C-CAM) at The Evergreen State College provided the production help and equipment for a day of filming at Stafford Creek. The students and staff from C-CAM did a fantastic job drawing out the script from the offenders, as well as setting up and framing the video.

Mixing the potting soil and adding the appropriate quantity of fertilizer.

Record keeping is vital to improving the long-term success of the project.

Applying the right amount of cover soil over the seed.

Preparing to water in newly sown seeds with a gentle spring rain of water.

The training video would not be complete without providing the context for why this nursery project exists. The nursery work and skills are good training for offenders, but another goal is to restore important prairie habitat for threatened and endangered species throughout the south Puget Sound. Some of the plants from SCCC were delivered to a prairie on Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM). During the first week of November, a hard-working field crew was on hand to plant out 30,000 plants to increase butterfly nectar sources and serve as larval hosts.

Filming at the Joint Base Lewis McChord Plant Out

Up close and personal with some of the plant out crew; each of the 30,000 goes in one at a time.

Filming the plant out crew with Kimi the prairie dog.

Luckily, nature provided us with a spectacular backdrop and view of the prairie lands at JBLM, perfect for filming a training video.  The students from C-CAM were able to practice filming a wide variety of shots.  The resulting video will be edited over the next few months, voice-overs added, and it will be finished in February. This will be a valuable training tool for new offenders joining the nursery crew during 2011.  As training improves and new discoveries are made each season, we look forward to improved native plant propagation operations.   Watch for the finished video on our web site February 2011.

Rod Gilbert of the Fish and Wildlife Division of Joint Base Lewis McCord explaining the importance of the plant production to prairie restoration for the film.

1 Comment:

  1. sherry clement

    i think this is a very good program glad you are giving the inmates a chance to learn new skills and contribute to something so important to every one we will all benefit from the hard work and skills they have gained through this program i hop this can be a model for other prisons to help put people back into the community with something to look forward to other than going back into the systom due to lack of support and skills thanks for giving them hop .

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