Category Archives: collaboration

Aquaponic knowledge, from one program to another

By Marisa Pushee, SPP Conservation Program Coordinator

Note: please be aware that individuals featured in this story and in these images have victims who are concerned about re-victimization; any sharing or promoting should keep that risk in mind.

This week, incarcerated students and conservationists gathered in the greenhouse at Cedar Creek where Anna Duron led a workshop for the aquaponics program. Anna serves as the SPP Coordinator for the Emergent Vegetated Mat (EVM) program at Stafford Creek and drew from her background in utilizing aquaponics for conservation initiatives. The workshop focused on best practices when working with aquaponics and the chemistry behind maintaining a stable system.

SPP Coordinator Anna Duron and SPP Biological Science Technician Will Rathgeber show workshop participants how to test pH, nitrite, nitrate, and ammonia for the water in the Cedar Creek aquaponics system.
Anna describes her work with the EVM aquaponics system at Stafford Creek, detailing the differences between varying approaches to aquaponics.

SPP Biological Science Technicians as well as students and TAs from Centralia College‘s horticulture program joined for the hands-on learning opportunity. They tested the pH, nitrite, nitrate, and ammonia levels of the water in the aquaponics system, discussing why certain results were more desirable and how the plants respond if any of the readings are too high or too low.

Many of the workshop participants were current TAs or students in the Centralia College horticulture program at Cedar Creek.
Workshop participant watches the fish enjoy their breakfast.

Since many of the workshop participants were horticulture enthusiasts, they compared successes and challenges, finding commonality in obstacles like plant nutrition and integrated pest management. We look forward to continued collaboration with such an engaged group of students!

Workshop participants discuss plant health.

The Magic of Caring for Turtles

By William Angelmyer, former SPP Turtle Technician and current student at The Evergreen State College. Photos by SPP staff unless otherwise noted.

Bill worked as a Turtle Technician for SPP from 2015-2018 and is now completing his undergraduate degree at The Evergreen State College. Note that some of the turtle care protocols referenced in this blog have changed since Bill left the program.

Bill Anglemyer holds at western pond turtle.

“Any job that offers an opportunity to change perceptions is more than just a job; it’s a learning experience.”

Summer is coming to an end. This is an exciting time for the SPP Turtle Technicians at Cedar Creek. The end of summer means that soon the technicians will be receiving new turtles. Speaking from personal experience, I know that summer is a good time to do a lot of reading and research—basically, doing book work. Without turtles to manage, we technicians spend the summer studying and catching up on other projects.

Raising mealworms for the next round of turtles and entering data for a woodpecker monitoring project  keep us busy every day, but the real valuable time is the time spent learning about biology and animal behavior. Of course this takes some self-motivation to launch because you are responsible for your own choice of study. No one makes you read text books. For those of us that use education as a coping mechanism to deal with incarceration, we can’t be stopped from studying. After an entire summer of reading, though, it is a refreshing change to receive new western pond turtles and start practicing animal care and shell disease management. Although this hands-on work carries with it a new level of stress and anxiety, it also provides valuable moments fraught with emotional ups and downs. Caring for the turtles brings home some of the studying from a theoretical context into a concrete reality. All of the turtles we receive after summer have gone through a recent debriding process. Debriding is a procedure where portions of their shells have been cut away in order to stop the disease from spreading.

Mealworms production at Cedar Creek. All part of a balanced turtle diet.
Anglemyer reveals the healed plastron of a turtle about to be released into the wild.

Unfortunately, this procedure—removing damaged portions of the shell—also leaves the turtles with wounds that have to be taken care of diligently in order to ensure that they heal efficiently and without infection. This is where the emotional rollercoaster part of the job comes to bear. Not all the turtles heal at the same rates. Some turtles heal slowly. Sometimes, they heal very slowly. Sometimes turtles will stop eating for days or weeks. Cataloging their  progress and behavior can be worrying at times.

Turtle Technician Bill Anglymeyer and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist Emily Butler evaluating turtles before releasing them back into their habitat.

However, these new worries are accompanied by a refreshing hands-on learning experience. Many of the technicians have never worked closely with reptiles. Many people have preconceived notions about reptiles having a deficiency of personality. Moreover, reptiles are stereotyped as being only focused on needs and lacking social interactions. After working closely with turtles, though, it is easy to recognize the personalities of each individual. Like many mammals, some are social and playful, some are fearful and isolate, and some are fixated completely on food.

Western pond turtle, a state listed endangered species and one of only two native turtles in Washington State.

Seeing this new perspective is one of the most valuable experiences I gained as a Turtle Technician. Any job that offers an opportunity to change perceptions is more than just a job; it’s a learning experience.  My work with SPP was also greatly valuable to me because seasonal changes offer such a wide variety of experiences. Summer means book work and the fall means implementing that study into practical experience—along with the experience of caring for real animal lives. I miss my times at the CCCC Turtle Area. That may seem a little insane, considering I was incarcerated at the time. But the time I spent learning and caring for creatures, which I had had very little understanding of before, was a magical time during which I rarely realized that I was incarcerated.

Bill on Evergreen’s organic farm. Photo by Tierra Petersen.

Peer education created by and for incarcerated gardeners

By Carly Rose, SPP Curriculum Development Coordinator and Emerico, Gardening Curriculum Author

Gardeners tend to the soil in the gardens at Monroe Correctional Complex – Washington State Reformatory Unit. Incarcerated authors at MCC-WSRU are working with SPP to author chapters on Vermicomposting, Bokashi Composting, and Soil Science. Photo by Joslyn Rose Trivett.

For the past six months, gardeners at Stafford Creek Corrections Center and Monroe Correctional Complex – Washington State Reformatory Unit have been helping to build the new Gardening Curriculum. To develop course chapters, authors are combining expertise gained through personal experience with knowledge from scholarly research. Authors are working on a voluntary basis: they elect to share based on their desire to explore and describe a particular topic; some of the chapters currently in development include Vermicomposting & Bokashi Composting, Soil Science, the Soil Food Web, Planting and Harvesting Vegetables in Prison, Seed Saving, and Aquaponics.

Developing part of a curriculum while incarcerated requires some creativity. In order to submit materials, authors have provided handwritten work that is then typed and formatted by myself. One author types his work into JPay (social email) and mails it to a family member who mails it back, which gives him a pre-typed manuscript to submit. Most authors also provide their own illustrations and diagrams to be included in the chapter. Authors use a mixture of narrative from personal experience, tips on gardening that are specific to a prison environment, and college-level scholarly research to produce their work. They provide instruction that is created by and intended for incarcerated gardeners across the country. Authors and I send materials back and forth so they may provide feedback and edits on separate drafts of their work. One of the authors, Emerico, offered a personal narrative on his motivation to learn and write about his topic, Aquaponics. 

Introduction to Aquaponics by Emerico

I first became interested in aquaponics after reading a few articles and watching some educational television programs. I was working on the gardening crew at Stafford Creek and when the gardening classes started, I was thrilled to be included. Over time, I have learned every person—incarcerated or not—has a purpose in life. My purpose was building an aquaponics system with no budget. I had to lose my freedoms before I could find my purpose in life. This is where aquaponics all began for me. I had an idea, so I put it to paper and talked to the garden supervisor about the idea.

One of my first jobs on the garden crew was working with the hydroponics system. I found out that this type of system, which requires chemicals to grow plants and vegetables, is expensive and I believe far less healthy. My goal was to get away from using chemicals and go to more of a natural resource system. I thought about a way to build a small-scale aquaponics system that uses fish to feed the vegetables. After many attempts to get it approved, and with the help of the garden crew, we built a recycled materials aquaponics system. The first part of the vision of my idea came to life.

This is part of the aquaponics system built by Emerico, who is authoring a chapter on Aquaponics. He explained that he wants the chapter to be accessible to both incarcerated gardeners and low-income families outside of prison. Photo by Jacob Meyers.

There is a sense of satisfaction when growing your own vegetables whether for self/family or others. I believe also that gardening can relieve stress. This country is blessed; there should not be anyone going hungry. We see too much senseless hunger in our country and throughout the world. There must be a solution to this problem. How can we do this? By making people aware and teaching them that aquaponics is not only a healthier way to grow produce, but is also cheaper. Aquaponics saves money in the long run for people and their families, and is a fun way to bring families together in the garden.

As for me, it is all about giving back and helping those in the community and throughout society that are less fortunate. The purpose is to get a finer perception of aquaponics through research. Anyone can pretty much build a small-scale aquaponics system with a limited budget and few resources. I hope this brief overview has helped you. Above all else, have fun.

From his lab notebook, Emerico shows a diagram of the aquaponics system. Photo by Joslyn Rose Trivett.

Next Steps

The course is projected to pilot in winter of this year. The two teams of authors plan to be part of that process as well; they will be among the first to try out the new program. Their feedback during and after the trial run will help us further refine the course, and then be ready to share it statewide and beyond.

All of the authors have personal experience gardening in prison, working on projects such as this garden at Stafford Creek Corrections Center. This garden is tended by individuals serving a life sentence, and is known as the “lifer’s garden.” Photo by Ricky Osborne.

First Place Honey!

Text by Bethany Shepler, Green Track Program Coordinator

Twin Rivers Unit’s honey took first place! Photo by Susan Collins, Beekeeping Liaison and Correctional Unit Supervisor at MCC-TRU

Monroe Correctional Complex – Twin Rivers Unit‘s (MCC-TRU) beekeeping program participated in the Evergreen State Fair for the second time this year. They host a booth along with Northwest District Beekeepers Association. This year, for the first time, they entered their honey into the Fair’s honey competition and…they won first place!

Their bee program is only in its second year, but it has blossomed thanks to the unending support from staff at MCC-TRU and the enthusiastic participation from incarcerated students. We can’t wait to see all the great things this program in the future.

Congratulations, MCC-TRU!

Another Stellar Year for the Legendary Penitentiary Bee Program

Text by Bethany Shepler, Green Track Program Coordinator
Photos by Jonathan Fischer, Beekeeping Liaison and Classification Counselor at Washington State Penitentiary

Ryder Chronic, a Journeyman beekeeper, inspects a frame.

The Washington State Penitentiary (WSP) hosts one of the oldest and best-established beekeeping programs in Washington State Department of Corrections. They have built a professional-size apiary, certified 44 incarcerated men as beekeepers, participated in a National Honey Bee Pest Survey by the USDA, hosted a professional beekeeper (Mona Chambers, founder of See the Bees), and—in general— have established themselves as a leader in prison beekeeping.

They are about to finish a Journeyman Beekeeper course, putting them on the path to classes led by incarcerated beekeepers!

Below are some photos from the last day of a recent Beginner class, when students and staff sponsors left the classroom to inspect some of the many hives that WSP keeps.

A beekeeper is inspecting this hive frame to see what the bees are doing – are they making honey, storing pollen, or caring for baby bees? Can you tell?
A beekeeper holds a frame full of bees. A healthy hive at the peak of the season can have 60,000 – 80,000 bees in it!
Hives are inspected a few times a month to make sure that the queen and hive are healthy. During this inspection, beekeepers added honey supers to catch honey the bees produce.

Jonathan Fischer, the beekeeping liaison, had this to say about the program “we had a stellar year, with 8 honey supers ready for harvest. These 8 boxes will produce about 270-300 pounds of honey.”

Garden expansion and delicious prison bananas: Olympic Corrections Center Horticulture Program

Text and photos by Bethany J. Shepler, Green Track Program Coordinator

Planted and cared for by the horticulture students at Olympic Corrections Center, these roses, are ready to bloom.

I had the pleasure of visiting Olympic Corrections Center (OCC) in June. I was excited to see all of the gardens’ growth and expansion since my visit last year. After my visit last year, I published a blog about the different sustainability programming at OCC. Though my visits were in different seasons, comparisons were still clear.
OCC is on the Olympic Peninsula surrounded by the PNW’s famous temperate rainforest and gets rain most days of the year. OCC is referred to as a “camp”–meaning it houses people who have 4 years or less on their prison sentence–and currently houses about 380 incarcerated individuals. OCC offers some incredible sustainability programs including horticulture, a pre-apprenticeship trade skills program similar to TRAC, wastewater treatment, composting, wood shop, and dog training. OCC also partners with Peninsula College to offer educational opportunities. OCC’s horticulture program, sponsored by instructor Jamie Calley, allows students to take classes, plant and maintain gardens, design and implement projects, and earn certificates for their work.

This landscaping surrounds the greenhouses at OCC… the “H” is for horticulture!

When I first arrived, the facility looked pretty much the same: fences, buildings, lots of tan outfits. But, once I got inside and I was blown away by all of the plant growth and garden expansion in the horticulture area. The horticulture program’s hard work and innovation were well apparent: they’d added whole garden areas, flowerbeds encircling the greenhouses, and additional landscaping in the established garden area. In just over a year, the horticulture students and Ms. Calley have transformed OCC.

Below are pictures of the horticulture area from both my visit in March of 2018 and my most recent visit in June. They really illustrate how much the program participants have accomplished in a year.

This vegetable garden is a new addition since I visited last year. The horticulturists have been busy!
These bananas grow inside the greenhouse – I got to eat one and they are delicious!
Jamie Calley is the staff sponsor for the horticulture program at OCC. Here, Jamie is looking at some of the beautiful landscaping and gardens the horticulture cared for by students. Without a doubt, her enthusiastic support and advocacy for this program has enabled progress and expansions in the program.

Growth!

Text and photos by Marisa Pushee, SPP Conservation Coordinator.

Following some adjustments this past winter, the aquaponics system at Cedar Creek Corrections Center (CCCC) is now thriving. It took a lot of work and perseverance from Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) Biological Technicians, but their dedication has paid off.

Earlier this winter, SPP technicians noticed that these plants were looking a little yellow, an indication that they weren’t getting enough iron.

In January, Nick Naselli and Daniel Cherniske, co-founders of Symbiotic Cycles, assessed the state of the system and found that the pH, at 7.8-8, was too alkaline for plant life. The high pH had made the iron in the system inaccessible to the plants, resulting in yellowing of the leaves and stunted growth. In order to combat these problems, Symbiotic Cycles and SPP Biological Technicians changed the system’s bio-media from grow stones to red pumice rock and added iron nutrient to the system. Take a look through the photos to see the impact of these adjustments!

SPP Biological Technician, Lorenzo Stewart, situates the plugs in the system’s raft beds.
With the adjustments to the pH and iron levels, the greens started to take off.
SPP Biological Technician, Donald McLain, checks the plants for insects. Technicians spray plant leaves with a mixture of olive oil, garlic, natural soap, and water to deter the aphids.
Symbiotic Cycles Co-founder, Daniel Cherniske, assesses system progress during a recent site visit to Cedar Creek.

Plants that do well in an aquaponics system include leafy greens like lettuce, kale, chard, mustard greens, and bok choy. Cilantro and chives also thrive, and they even help keep away aphids.
The greens from this system are used in Cedar Creek’s kitchens to help provide the facility’s incarcerated population with fresh, healthy meals.

The greens are looking much better, well on their way to harvest.
After a little TLC, the plants are looking plush! The fan in this photo helps improve air circulation, which is beneficial for the plants and can help deter aphids.

With summer around the corner, SPP Biological Technicians will soon have to combat rising temperatures and increased sun exposure, but the introduction of a fan and shade cloth will help maintain a healthy and productive system.

Turtle Release Day for Cedar Creek

Unless otherwise noted, text and photos by Bill Anglemyer, Evergreen student and former Turtle Technician.

SPP Biological Technician, Jeramie Inge, and Evergreen student, Bill Angelmyer, with a western pond turtle. Photo by Marisa Pushee.

With the technicians responsible for their rehabilitation, on April 10th, ten turtles made their way back to the ponds at the South Puget Sound Wildlife Area. Three incarcerated Biological Technicians working for The Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) had spent the last five months caring for the turtles and monitoring their progress. The turtles had been healing after being treated for the mysterious shell disease that has been afflicting their population.

Left to right: SPP Liaison Tyler Kennedy, SPP Biological Technician Donald McLain, WDFW Biologist Emily Butler, SPP Biological Technician Jeramie Inge, and SPP Biological Technician William Rathgeber. Photo by Marisa Pushee.

The turtles are western pond turtles, a state-listed endangered species. The historic population had been devastated by human harvesting. Their numbers were lowered additionally by habitat destruction and an influx of invasive species. Twenty-five years ago, the population of western pond turtles in Washington State was estimated to be only around a hundred and fifty. Efforts were taken to protect and enhance their numbers. These efforts have been successful. The current population is estimated at eight hundred.

SPP Biological Technician Donald McLain releasing one of the western pond turtles he cared for at Cedar Creek.
SPP Biological Technician Donald McLain releasing a western pond turtle.
From left to right: WDFW Biologist Emily Butler, SPP Biological Technician William Rathgaber, SPP Biological technician Donald McLain, SPP Conservation Coordinator Marisa Pushee, and SPP Biological Technician Jeramie Inge.

Tragically, the shell disease appeared in the last decade, and it is seriously impacting western pond turtles. While Washington State Fish and Wildlife biologists and veterinarians attempt to find the cause of shell disease, they are trying different tactics in treating the turtles that are most afflicted. After the treatments, which involve removing diseased sections of the turtles’ shells, the turtles need a place to heal. The technicians at Cedar Creek make sure that the turtles are well-fed and have clean habitats. Additionally, the technicians keep detailed records of the healing progress of the turtles’ shells. Lots of effort goes into keeping them as stress free as possible. The rehabilitation area is kept quiet because loud noises and other external stimuli cause stress in the wild turtles, which hampers their ability to heal.

WDFW Biologist, Emily Butler, demonstrates how she protects the nests of this state-endangered species. From left to right: Bill Angelmyer, SPP Biological Technician Jeramie Inge, SPP Biological Technician William Rathgaber, SPP Biological Technician Donald McLain, Officer James Erwick, WDFW Biologist Emily Butler, and SPP Liaison Tyler Kennedy.

Releasing the turtles back into the wild was a fairly simple and fanfare-free procedure. The technicians, SPP coordinator, SPP liaison, corrections officer, Fish and Wildlife biologist, and myself walked the strategically placed wooden planks that grant access to the edge of the pond. The plastic shoebox containers that were used to transport the turtles were opened, and the turtles taken out and gently placed in the water. Most of the turtles looked around for a second, as if to gain their bearing, and then swam off disappearing into the pond. Although the turtles need the treatment, they are wild critters, and they don’t like to be in a captive environment; they take to the murky pond like a prisoner to freedom.

WDFW Biologist Emily Butler shows Biological Technicians from Cedar Creek how she identifies each turtle.
WDFW Biologist, Emily Butler, demonstrates how she protects the nests of this state-endangered species. From left to right: Bill Angelmyer, SPP Biological Technician Jeramie Inge, SPP Biological Technician William Rathgeber, SPP Biological Technician Donald McLain, Officer James Erwick, WDFW Biologist Emily Butler, and SPP Liaison Tyler Kennedy. Photo by Marisa Pushee.

It was a great experience seeing the turtles swim off into the pond. It was great to talk to the technicians about their experiences caring for the turtles. To hear the technicians talk about their plans for the future was inspiring. This is because I was a turtle technician at Cedar Creek for three years. I was caring for turtles inside the prison only a short year ago. The current technicians seemed to be inspired by my presence too. We talked about education—I’m currently in college. I was elated to hear that each one of the technicians was seriously considering furthering their education once released. I hope to be invited to future releases and to meet with new technicians.

Left to right: Donald McLain, William Rathgaber, Jeramie Inge, and Bill Anglemyer. Photo by Marisa Pushee.

Fine Tuning Aquaponics at Cedar Creek

Photos and text by Marisa Pushee, SPP Conservation Coordinator.

Symbiotic Cycles Co-founder Nick Naselli and SPP Biological Technician Donald McLain evaluate plant health.


The aquaponics system at Cedar Creek Corrections Center (CCCC) received a new lease on life this winter. With assistance from CCCC’s technicians, Nick Naselli and Daniel Cherniske from Symbiotic Cycles first built the system at Cedar Creek in spring of 2018. To give the system a much-needed boost, they returned this January for a series of site visits and problem-solving sessions.

Nick Naselli introduces a suckerfish to the system. This fish eats algae and will improve visibility by cleaning up the water.

Aquaponics systems can be a great way to harvest food year-round, but they require some care and fine tuning to establish a system. It can take up to a year for a new aquaponics system to stabilize! SPP Biological Technicians have been putting in the work to ensure that the system thrives. And with the help of Nick and Daniel, Cedar Creek’s aquaponics is functioning better than ever, producing healthy and delicious greens for the facility’s kitchens.

SPP Biological Technician Lorenzo Stewart tests the water’s nitrate levels.
During this last winter, Symbiotic Cycles worked with SPP technicians to introduce the steel cables shown in this photo. The installation of this tensioning system to stabilize the raft beds will prevent further bowing of the system’s wooden sides.
After a few adjustments, we saw fast and impressive improvements in plant health.
Left to right: SPP Biological Technician Donald McLain, Symbiotic Cycles Co-founder Nick Naselli, SPP Biological Technician Lorenzo Stewart, and Symbiotic Cycles Co-founder Daniel Cherniske.

Stay tuned for an upcoming blog with more details on the plant growth in Cedar Creek’s aquaponics system!