Category Archives: Education

Beekeeping prisoners: Science inside the fence

Blog post written by Michael Nelson, an inmate at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center (posted by Project Manager Jeff Muse as Washington State offenders do not have Internet access):

In the summer of 2009, the Sustainable Prisons Project sponsored beekeeping classes at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center (SCCC) in Aberdeen, Washington. I participated in the program which maintained four beehives inside the prison: three alongside the prison’s vast vegetable garden and one inside an “observation hive” in a commercial, cold-frame greenhouse. The program was remarkable in several respects.

Michael Nelson (center) examines the anatomy of bees during a class at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center. Photo: Doug Raines.

Michael Nelson (center) examines the anatomy of bees during a class at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center. Photo: Doug Raines.

My 11 years of confinement taught me prison’s hostile captor/captive dynamic. Our prisons isolate criminals — not just from the communities in which they’ve committed their crimes, but from nature, and from normal, healthy relationships. The type of “outside the box” thinking that spawned the Sustainable Prisons Project holds great promise for prison reform in ways most free-world people can’t understand. I’ll try to explain.

For two months each Wednesday at noon, entomologist Sam Hapke met with about 10 of us in SCCC’s V Building. On our first day, after some instruction, we went out to inspect the hives. Our initial fear of being stung had a weird affect on us — the “fronts” we put up as prisoners fell away in a sort of humble awe amidst the force of nature the bees represented.

It’s impossible to maintain a “tough guy” facade when handling bees. Pretense falls away in the symbiotic relationship between man and bees — things can go wrong quickly if you’re not on your best behavior. And it did cultivate our best behavior. Without our being told, we picked up on our interdependence with the bee. The larger message of our interdependence in society — which the bee is an important part of — was also immediately apparent, despite our not being told.

To me, there is something folkish about beekeeping. Perhaps my ancestors were among those early colonists who brought Apis melliflora (the “white man’s fly”) to North America. It was almost as if some Jungian collective memory was triggered in me. I felt quite at home dismantling and inspecting hives, engulfed within the swarm of bees whom I trusted somehow not to sting me. And I was never stung, despite my never wearing protective gear. I’m not afraid of being stung anymore.

I am hooked on beekeeping. From my perspective, every other prisoner in the program was affected in a similar way. The value of the program became apparent when I considered what it would be like if more prisoners were participating. You should consider that, too.

I propose a permanent relationship between agricultural researchers and inmates in Washington State. We could call the program “Apicultural Research in Prisons.” Since our civilization is utterly dependent on bees for its agriculture, and since bees are presently threatened by widespread colony collapse disorder, it would benefit us to form such partnerships with university agricultural extension services.

What better place than prisons for this kind of work? The controlled environment of facilities like SCCC lend themselves to reliable statistical research that can help scientists examine our most pressing environmental problems. It’s a natural fit, one that benefits researchers, prisoners and society.

— Michael Nelson, Stafford Creek Corrections Center, August 27, 2009

Beekeeping at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center

Blog post by Project Manager Jeff Muse:

In the summer of 2009, more than a dozen offenders at the Cedar Creek and Stafford Creek corrections learned skills in beekeeping. Led by Evergreen scientist Sam Hapke and correctional staffers Vicki Briggs and Doug Raines, our part-time program involved both classroom study and outdoor work with hives in each prison.

While working in the prison garden, a Stafford Creek inmate cares for the prison's beehives. Photo: Doug Raines.

While working in the garden, a Stafford Creek inmate cares for the prison's beehives as part of a training program led by Evergreen scientist Sam Hapke. Photo: Doug Raines.

Offenders learned about bee biology and behavior, hive construction and maintenance, beekeeping equipment and commercial business practices — profitable skills for a post-prison career, be it in honey and beeswax production or pollinating fruits and vegetables in orchards and farms.

After collecting honey from the prison's beehives, Stafford Creek offenders learn how to create products such as lip balm and hand lotion. Photo: Doug Raines.

After collecting honey from the prison's beehives, Stafford Creek offenders learn how to create products such as lip balm and hand lotion. Photo: Doug Raines.

Under Hapke’s guidance, next year we hope to design and conduct inmate-led research projects with publishable results, not only advancing science, but also modeling this training program for other institutions. Often located in rural areas, prisons are uniquely positioned to support the pollination of wild and commercial plants while helping scientists study the alarming threat of bee colony collapse.

Under scientist Sam Hapke’s guidance, inmates hope to design and conduct research projects with publishable results. Often located in rural areas, prisons are uniquely positioned to support the pollination of wild and commercial plants while helping scientists study the alarming threat of bee colony collapse. Photo: Doug Raines.

A Stafford Creek inmate learns how to use a microscope for biological study. Photo: Doug Raines.

Gardens take root at McNeil Island prison

Blog post by Project Manager Jeff Muse:

The McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC) is digging into the Sustainable Prisons Project with inspiring results.

This summer, MICC Gardens Supervisor Scott Skaggs led a team of inmates in turning patches of grass into a field of organic vegetables destined for the prison’s kitchen. Approximately one acre of lawn in the middle of the facility now boasts tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins and other plants, as well as small composting units to enhance the soil. Supervised by Scott, a 27-year veteran at MICC, the inmates manage the garden as part of their jobs on the prison’s horticulture crew.

Inmates at the McNeil Island Corrections Center show off their first-year broccoli (photo: Laurie Ballew).

Inmates at the McNeil Island Corrections Center tend the broccoli in the prison's first-year garden. Photo: Laurie Ballew.

With support from Evergreen graduate assistant Carl Elliott, a gardening and horticulture expert known for his appearances on KUOW’s Weekday, MICC staff and inmates are planning to expand this exciting operation. Next year, more grass inside the fence will be converted to organic food production or native plants.

Located in southern Puget Sound between Tacoma and Olympia, MICC occupies the site of a former federal penitentiary built in 1875. Today, it is administered by the Washington State Department of Corrections as the nation’s only prison operating on an island accessible solely by boat or airplane. Learn more about McNeil Island’s history.

Beekeeping: More than honey

Blog post by Graduate Assistant Sarah Clarke:

There are opportunities that come along only once in a lifetime, and I experienced one this week. Project Manager Jeff Muse and I visited the Cedar Creek Corrections Center (CCCC) to debrief offenders involved in our pilot beekeeping program with biologist Sam Hapke. When we arrived, I spotted five inmates preparing a multitude of hives for the coming autumn. Jeff suggested that I get in the middle of the action, and before I knew it I was in a veil and gloves, standing among honeybees.

Unexpected opportunities like this make my job that much more unique and special. What an experience to have thousands of bees buzzing about me, enveloping my hand as I touched their hives. There are times when you glimpse that there are much larger things at work in the world than you and your affairs. This was one of those awe-inspiring moments.

Later, while seated as a group on the prison’s lawn, Jeff and I assessed the beekeeping program through evaluative surveys and a taped discussion with the offenders and Sam Hapke. One of the most important reasons for our work is to introduce inmates to useful skills in science and sustainability while engaging their minds and inspiring positive attitudes and behaviors. Our intimate conversation revealed that beekeeping is hitting the mark. The offenders indicated that they are learning marketable skills for their lives after release, be it in commercial beekeeping or by starting their own hives at home. Plus, they regard the activity as a therapeutic tool, helping them grow through hands-on problem solving and a sense of responsibility for a world beyond the prison’s fences.

From standing among swarms of bees to hearing first-hand how lives can be changed through education, I can honestly say that there is never a dull day for me at the Sustainable Prisons Project. Indeed, it’s changing my own life.

Green-collar kites: Inmates share their ideas for sustainability

Blog post by Project Manager Jeff Muse:

Inmates often communicate through “kites,” traditionally a slang term for any hand-written note passed among offenders or to the outside world. What used be only secretive scribbling has become a formal system of communicating ideas and feedback to correctional staff and partners in the Sustainable Prisons Project.

During all of our activities, we ask inmates to share requests in order to deepen their investment in sustainability. In July 2009, offenders at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center wrote the following kites to express what they would like to learn through our green-collar education programs (courtesy of Stafford Creek employee Ruth Walker, who typed and sent these notes to me):

  • “I would love to learn about: 1) Residential solar panels and windmills – operation, cost, maintenance; what can I learn now so I can run a business selling by installing systems after prison? 2) Automotive hybrid (electric) transmissions, how they work – again, how can I learn and train now so I can sell and install such after release.”
  • “I am kiting in regards to your request for lecture ideas. A couple I can think of are water waste and pollution and the importance of turning a light off or the tv and how saving this energy will help conserve by doing the small stuff.”
  • “Wind energy – from commercial to residential to rural residential. Covering various types of windmills available and their supporting systems. Need information on the various mills and contact addresses-mail, phone, websites in order to locate all the mills available for personal and commercial use. Also, info on what each mill is capable of powering on its own off the grid. Low energy consuming appliances that can be used with and without being connected to the grid. Such as hot water heaters, stoves, fridges, and entertainment systems. These should be separate events as to be able to adequately cover the items. They should also follow each other as hand in hand so to speak.”
  • “Carbon-offset industry eg. Tree planting to offset CO2
    Wetland mitigation banking in Wash. State
    Green commercial and residential construction
    Green Publications (mags and books we can obtain to read)
    Residential solar and wind turbine systems setup and costs
    State and describe the big green nonprofits in WA State
    The Greenest for profit companies in WA
    Greenest modes for transportation people and freight/cargo
    Eating healthier in prison natural/organic items on store?  Allow 1 piece of fruit to be brought back from chain.”
  • “Discuss green business degrees. Traditional schools that offer accredited degrees through correspondence. Discuss certificates, Associates, Bachelors of PHD/Doctorate Programs. Maybe bring literature in. I received an MBA via correspondence while at SCCC, but wish it was a green MBA.”
  • “Green earth events suggestions. Water conservation techniques. Rain barrels, drip irrigation, green home water re-circulation systems; such as ponds with fish and plants, waterfalls, fountains used for aeration, cleansing and purifying used water from a home. Planters for growing herbs using grey water to water.”
  • “I was wondering, was Benj and Sara (multimedia consultants) going to come back and show us what they’ve created so far as to what they put on the web site? One idea would be to bring back those that have already been here to possibly expand on what they have reiterated already. This could be done in a two part event as to give each at least a half hr, with at least a half hr from 8-8:30 for questions.”
  • “Sewage disposable and treatment plants. Composting sewage, animal, mushroom, fish, wood waste etc. Warehouse Corp – wood waste, plywood and other wood waste manufactured products. Telephone/electric poles, fireplace logs from pulp, bark. Manufactured boards for houses and decks, fence post and boards, bolts and nuts, poles, recycling plastics. The destroying of farm lands for wall to wall urban housing and new roadways (instead of rebuilding existing roadways and bridges and rebuild them up above flood plains. Water systems for home usage, wells, springs and springhouses, cisterns, usage of rain water. Victory Garden and putting up storage of harvest. Off the grid home power vs. public power, wind, solar, water, generators, man powered, batteries. Finding many grants to buy farms, small business, tools, clothing etc. Insurance, medical, home, transportation, business.”

How do we evaluate our programs?

Blog post by Graduate Assistant Sarah Clarke:

In addition to coordinating the lecture series at the women’s prison, I help conduct the formal evaluation of our wider educational efforts in four corrections centers. This behind-the-scenes work comprises much of my job as a graduate assistant in the Sustainable Prisons Project. It also provides data for my thesis in the Master of Environmental Studies Program at The Evergreen State College.

Today, I conducted my first interview! A bit nervous, I rather mechanically read from the scripted questions, but I expect things to go more smoothly as I become comfortable with the process. Already, I have a sense of how some of the questions need to be reworded and which ones could be dropped altogether. I am finding that this is part of the fun and creativity of evaluation.

Thankfully, I have the help of the professional firm David Heil and Associates, which has extensive experience in the assessment of informal, science-based educational programs. With its guidance, since April 2009 I have administered and analyzed hundreds of surveys from participants in our educational programs and science projects. Imagine the scene, both before and after a presentation, as prisoners and officers share their thoughts about plant and wildlife ecology, climate change or the green economy!

Staff at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center complete educational surveys prior to the start of our endangered frog project (photo: Jeff Muse).

Staff at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center complete educational surveys prior to the start of our endangered frog project. Photo: Jeff Muse.

Interviews are the latest method to be added to our repertoire. Talking with guest presenters in our science and sustainability lecture series, I gather everything from their personal and professional backgrounds to their experiences as an educator. This information helps us develop an effective and mutually beneficial experience for everyone involved. Soon, we will begin interviewing a subset of inmates and correctional staff.

Due to the variability of our current educational programs and the small sample sizes in our science projects, our preliminary report will not include extensive quantitative statistics, though this is our long-term goal with continued funding and greater participation. For now, we are working with David Heil and Associates to assess multiple data points, which can help us determine what our next steps should be.

This evaluation is exploratory in nature, for the project itself as well as for me!

Health conference for incarcerated women

Blog post by Graduate Assistant Sarah Clarke:

Last week, I met with staff at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) to help plan the prison’s annual conference for female offenders. Fun-filled, productive meetings are the hallmark of my time with WCCW, and this meeting was no exception as laughter and enthusiastic ideas pervaded the gathering.

We met to plan an agenda that introduces diverse aspects of healthy living – physical, spiritual, emotional and environmental. As the planner of the environmental portion of the conference, I am tasked with finding presenters whose work illuminates the links between personal and environmental health. This task requires some ingenuity as it can be a stretch to combine the two, but find those presenters I will!

Already, we’ve lined up our first guest: Dr. Frances Solomon, a toxicologist with Washington State University and University of British Columbia. She will present on toxins in household products (e.g., cosmetics, children’s toys) and how they can affect human health, the health of other organisms and, more broadly, the health of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

I look forward to planning our monthly lecture series at WCCW, which will begin after the September conference and run through next spring. It is exciting and rewarding to work with people who care deeply about the well being of incarcerated women. Realizing how much we all have in common – prisoners, correctional staff and community supporters – has been a huge awakening for me. Before starting this job, I thought that prisons were heartless, but now that stereotype has been blown out of the water.