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Sustainability Seminars begin at Washington State Penitentiary

by Robert Branscum, Correctional Specialist 3, Washington State Penitentiary

Gretchen Graber, Native Plant Greenhouse Manager for Washington State University (WSU), giving a presentation on native and invasive plants.

Gretchen Graber, Native Plant Greenhouse Manager for Washington State University (WSU), giving a presentation on native and invasive plants.


Washington State Penitentiary (WSP) has had its first Sustainability Seminar. It was a fantastic success. Gretchen Graber, Native Plant Greenhouse Manager for Washington State University (WSU), gave a presentation on native and invasive plants. She also brought both native and invasive specimens for hands-on learning. Gretchen did a great job. Special thanks to Brent Caulk and the West Complex education staff for the use of the classroom and projector.

Participants were very involved in the class: very attentive, asking many pertinent questions, and showing much interest in the subject matter. The offenders strongly expressed their appreciation at the end of the seminar and were still asking questions on the way out the door.

The seminar series is the product of cooperation between WSP, WSU, and the Sustainability in Prisons Project. Our plan is have a seminar every month, and upcoming topics will include barn owls, wolverines, waste water processing, and much more.

I am really excited about this program. The seminar series acts as an incentive, as offenders must exhibit good behavior for a sufficient period of time to attend. It also gives them something to focus their energy on, and I feel that it just takes ‘planting the seed’ of thought to grow some brilliant ideas. Most of all, it was purely awesome watching the offenders through the lecture. They were very engaged, asked relative and pertinent questions, and shared personal insights related to the subject matter. Four days later, I have received multiple shows of appreciation and requests for more, more, more. In response to the question of how to improve the seminar, one offender said “I couldn’t. More time. Have more or longer times.”

Our biggest hang-up is the limitations of class size. The classrooms currently available are relatively small, allowing for no more that 25 attendees. With over 70 offenders interested in participating we need more space! I am working to see what I can do to make this happen in the future. I feel that once we provide several successful seminars, we will have better footing to find a larger classroom.


Gardening with Sophie Hart at Cedar Creek Corrections Center

by Sophie Hart, SPP volunteer

Inmate prepping the beds for seed sowing.

Inmate prepping the beds for seed sowing.

About a month ago, I began volunteering in the gardening programs at Cedar Creek Corrections Center (CCCC) through the Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP). My experiences at CCCC have been very positive. I find myself really looking forward to my time spent there each week. It has been great working with the staff, from superintendant Douglas Cole, programs manager Charlie Washburn and volunteer coordinator Kim Govreau, to the officers I encounter each week. All have been welcoming of my efforts and presence, and I am especially thankful for their support and dedication to the gardening programs. I think they have truly tough jobs, and I am impressed by the positive attitudes and spirit they bring to their work. I see them show respect to inmates, and get respect in return.

I am grateful, too, to be working with a group of hard-working inmates. They seem to enjoy their work, and have responded kindly and welcomingly to my input. When I first began volunteering, I was worried about establishing my role with them. Recently, though, we have been so busy measuring garden plots, discussing what seeds to order and preparing the beds for Spring planting that I haven’t had much time to dwell on the fact that I’m in a prison working with inmates. They don’t do much to remind me of that either.

Of course, I am reminded whenever an inmate opens up about what led them to CCCC. And every time I hear myself called “Ms. Hart.” And when I am buzzed-through the control office to get to the gardens outside the fence. But when the inmates discuss their experiences working on the gardens, they remind me of any other gardener. Some talk about their time in the greenhouses as a reprieve from their daily lives, and the gardens as their own space to take care of. This month, everyone is itching to get growing.

Inmates applying a blend of organic fertilizers to the beds.

Inmates applying a blend of organic fertilizers to the beds.

In the brief time I have spent at CCCC, I can tell that SPP doesn’t only impact the inmates by providing interesting and engaging jobs, but the programs also affect the way the facility is perceived, by staff and prisoners alike. On my first visit to the prison, Mr. Cole led our group on a tour of the prison grounds, stopping at their many different gardening plots. We discussed the history of each plot: what was planted there before, how the soil behaved, how it was watered. When I asked about pests, I was told about their deer problem: the gardening spaces that are situated outside of the fence are frequently munched on by deer coming out of the (seriously beautiful) surrounding state park. Mr. Cole then laughed and jested that the fence wasn’t actually there to keep the men inside, but really to keep the deer out. An inmate challenged that it still wasn’t doing a very good job of keeping out the raccoons who love to rummage in the open compost heaps. Suddenly, the tall, chain-linked, razor-wire fence lost some of its edge. I remember this story and smile when I see it, imagining stealthy raccoons successfully navigating corrections’ security system to sneak in to the prison to steal from the gardens.

Inmate watches hungry deer eyeing the garden plot.

Inmate watches hungry deer eyeing the garden plot.

My First Two Months Working at SPP

By Graduate Research Assistant Drissia Ras

Working for the SPP is a great experience at all levels. It all started a couple of months ago. I am in fact no expert when it comes to prairie plant identification nor working with inmates, but I work under the direction of very experienced people and I’m learning to polish my experience in environmental restoration.

Inmate filling trays with soil for sowing Indian Paintbrush.

I spend my time between three nurseries: Shotwell’s Landing, WCCW (Washington Corrections Center for Woman) and SCCC (Stafford Creek Corrections Center). My focus is on the SCCC nursery where I go once a week to help a crew of inmates with sowing and making sure they have enough soil, seeds, space for trays and any other materials that they might need.

I can say with confidence that working with inmates is not what it sounds like at all. Inmates are just people like you and me, people that have been down on their luck for one reason or another, people that are paying their dues to society and trying to make the best out of their situation. The majority of the inmates we work with are there because they want to get involved in something meaningful, or because they have a previous experience in nursery work, or are just trying to make some money and escape the routine of prison. But whatever brought them to us, I try to make it a good experience for them, get them involved in our work and help them understand the big picture of what we do and why we do it. It is easy to lose focus and interest in what they are doing when they spend a long time just sowing and not thinking about how helpful and meaningful their job is. Lectures about science, ecology, and restoration techniques are a good way to keep them excited and engaged. The last lecture they had was about science and religion, and believe me, it was amazing hearing what they already knew of the subject and the discussion that followed. We had the same lecture as part of my Master’s program, yet the discussion they had was far more captivating than the one in my class. Most of the offenders truly appreciate when we describe the ecological context of what they are doing because it helps them understand the impact of their labor and see how it fits into the bigger picture of conservation.

Many of these offenders are already highly knowledgeable about horticulture, pesticide application, landscape management and many diverse disciplines. Most of them are able to offer valuable input on nursery methods and are often pleased to contribute ideas, take initiative, keep record of the sowing schedule and make the nursery run smoothly. A crew of inmates can sow up to 140 trays a day which is very impressive, efficient and usually quality oriented.

I honestly look forward to spending time with inmates because I am able to learn so much and I appreciate what everyone has to say.

Staging area at SCCC from Thursday morning, Feb. 7, 2013.

Rainbow over Staging Area at SCCC