Sages in Cages

By Stacy Chen, a first-year undergrad at Duke University. Ms. Chen took an interest in SPP’s work after attending a talk by Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, in which she described bringing her sustainability research projects into prisons.

A newly-graduated first-generation college student was incarcerated for accidental manslaughter at a party (Brown, 2009). During his 4 years at Cedar Creek Correctional Center, he read about 1000 books and authored his first scientific journal article along with an accomplished ecologist (Brown, 2009; Ulrich & Nadkarni, 2008). Within 5 years of his release, he completed his Ph.D. in Biochemistry and is now a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Nevada School of Medicine (“Craig Ulrich,” n.d.).

How did Craig Ulrich do that? He conducted ecological research in prison.

We have to stop assuming that human resources outside of academia are scientifically-handicapped and incapable of expanding the global pool of scientific knowledge. Sadly, scientists rarely look for research assistance outside of their expertise, believing their projects to be too lofty for the unschooled (Nadkarni & Morris, 2018).

A high school education is hard to come by for most prisoners, but that didn’t faze ecologist and entrepreneur Nalini Nadkarni (Brown, 2009). It wasn’t until she pioneered the Moss-in-Prisons project did the millions of marginalized inmates in American jails and prisons receive attention as potential contributors to conservation ecology (Nadkarni, 2019).

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni shows off a bag of moss in the Cedar Creek greenhouse, 2004. Raymond Price stands behind her in the photo and figuratively as well: he volunteered his time to ensure that the new programs operated day to day. Photo by SPP staff.

Today, 2.3 million people Americans live behind metal bars. Among them, around 60,000 are released each year, but more than half return to those cages within 3 years (N. M. Nadkarni & Morris, 2018). The recidivism rate isn’t so shocking after all. How are prisoners expected to make a living after years of idle incarceration, without any means to establish themselves as contributive, knowledgeable, and resourceful members of society?

In search of help for her research in ex-situ cultivation of epiphytic mosses—species essential for forest biodiversity and nutrient cycling—Nadkarni looked where no one else dared to (Ulrich & Nadkarni, 2009; Gotsch, Nadkarni, & Amici, 2016). The goal of her study was to develop a method to artificially-grow and commercialize mosses to protect those that would otherwise be stripped from forests and sold in the long-exploited million-dollar florist trade (Muir, 2004; Nadkarni, 2008). Nadkarni was looking for “fresh eyes and minds to spot innovative solutions” (Nadkarni, 2008, p. 248) and decided that those inmates, like Ulrich, constituted the most “needful” and “desirous” population when it came to environmental education (Nadkarni, 2019). Incarcerated adults did not go in completely illiterate on the subject either, for many of them come from the Northwest where they have already been acquainted with the beauty, diversity, and dynamics of nature on their hunting and fishing expenditures (Nadkarni, 2019).

At a National workshop in 2013, Craig Ulrich and Tamara Dohrman, Assistant Director of General Services for Oregon Department of Corrections, discuss their work with SPP. Photo by Guinnevere Shuster.

Nadkarni gave the inmates free rein. These budding scientists engineered moss flats to shelve the specimens and did their own pen-to-paper data collection and calculations. After two years, this collaboration developed a water treatment method for the cultivation of mosses and discovered potential for commercial farming of 3 species of mosses (Ulrich & Nadkarni, 2008).

Several inmates co-authored the research paper that came out of the Moss-in-Prisons project, with Ulrich being the primary author (Ulrich & Nadkarni, 2008). Some of these inmates left Cedar Creek and became horticulturists (Nadkarni, 2008, p. 250).

Sages in cages for real! Incarcerated technicians work in the Sagebrush in Prisons Project at a prison in Montana. Photo courtesy of Institute for Applied Ecology.

In the end, this project not only enhanced scientific knowledge and forest biodiversity preservation at large, it also provided inmates better candidacy for jobs upon release, created a synergetic relationship between the scientists and prisoners, and fostered a better attitude toward the undereducated populations (Nadkarni, 2019). Nadkarni considers withholding nature from prisoners a “punishment”, claiming that bringing these mosses into these correction centers “encourage[s] not only prisoners but also their jailers to value the healing qualities of nature” (N. M. Nadkarni, 2008, p. 247).

SPP Conservation Nursery Technicians Samantha Morgan regards golden paintbrush, a federally-listed threatened species, during a visit to the remnant prairie at Wolf Haven International. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Taking a step back, the Moss-in-Prisons project piloted by Dr. Nadkarni was only a spark that led to the countless environmental education programs and sustainability projects in prisons across the State of Washington. Out of Cedar Creek Correctional Center, Nadkarni co-founded the Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP), an organization engaging inmates in butterfly-breeding, honeybee-keeping, and prairie restoration projects today (“Sustainability in Prisons Project,” 2019). It’s encouraging to see similar programs starting up in many other US correction centers; however, most of these start-ups are concentrated in the Pacific Coast, Midwest, and Northeast areas, whereas the Southeast is missing in action (“SPP Network Programs,” n.d.).

What would it look like for government funds to go toward educating inmates? Perhaps it would reduce the whopping 52% recidivism rate (Nadkarni & Morris, 2018). Perhaps it would reinvent our view of prisoners: Instead of seeing them as convicts deserving of punishment, we would see them as potential propellers of science—people who are desperate for a second chance and scholars who yearn for contact with the outside world. Just like how mosses depend on trees to grow, prisoners require interactions with nature to thrive.


Brown, V. (2009, February 24). The Ecologist and the Prisoners. Retrieved April 20, 2019, from Pacific Standard website:

Craig Ulrich [University]. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2019, from Nevada Center for Bioinformatics website:

Gotsch, S. G., Nadkarni, N. M., & Amici, A. (2016). The functional roles of epiphytes and arboreal soils in tropical montane cloud forests. Journal of Tropical Ecology; Cambridge, 32(5), 455–468.

Muir, P. (2004). An Assessment of Commercial “Moss” Harvesting from Forested Lands in the Pacific Northwestern and Appalachian Regions of the United States: How Much Moss is Harvested and Sold Domestically and Internationally and Which Species are Involved? [Report to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S Geological Survey, Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center]. Retrieved from

Nadkarni, N. M. (2008). Between earth and sky : our intimate connections to trees. Retrieved from

Nadkarni, N. M. (2019, March). Science in Prisons – Bringing Conservation Biology and Environmental Sustainability to the Incarcerated. Presented at the Science & Society Classroom, North Building 232, Duke University. Science & Society Classroom, North Building 232, Duke University.

Nadkarni, N. M., & Morris, J. S. (2018). Baseline Attitudes and Impacts of Informal Science Education Lectures on Content Knowledge and Value of Science Among Incarcerated Populations. Science Communication, 40(6), 718–748.

SPP Network Programs. (n.d.). Retrieved March 23, 2019, from Sustainability in Prisons Project website:

Sustainability in Prisons Project. (2019). Retrieved May 1, 2019, from Sustainability in Prisons Project website:

Ulrich, C., & Nadkarni, N. M. (2008). Sustainability research and practices in enforced residential institutions: collaborations of ecologists and prisoners. Environment, Development and Sustainability; Dordrecht, 11(4), 815–832.

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