Category Archives: Environmental Justice

New directions for SPP-Evergreen team

By SPP Co-Director Kelli Bush

Following six years of dedicated leadership from Dr. Carri LeRoy, Evergreen’s team for the Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) enters a new era. We are so pleased that Carri will continue to support and influence SPP as our Senior Science Advisor. SPP is also now a Public Service Center for The Evergreen State College, playing a greater role in Evergreen’s campus community and receiving increased recognition and support. Together we are continually improving and growing SPP, and we know there’s still so much more to do!

SPP partners from Evergreen and Washington State Department of Corrections have just completed updates to SPP’s mission and vision statements. The new text represents greater emphases on education and change, acknowledgement of current environmental and justice system challenges, values shared by SPP partners, and a more succinct, stand-alone mission statement.

Mission Statement: We empower sustainable change by bringing nature, science, and environmental education into prisons.

Vision: In response to the dual crises of ecological degradation and mass incarceration, we aim to reduce recidivism while improving human well-being and ecosystem health. SPP brings together incarcerated individuals, scientists, corrections staff, students, and program partners to promote education, conserve biodiversity, practice sustainability, and help build healthy communities. Together, we reduce the environmental, economic, and human costs of prisons.

Butterfly technician Kristina Faires receives a certificate for her academic and technical accomplishments in the program; program coordinator Seth Dorman poses with her to recognize her achievements. Photo by Keegan Curry.

Going forward, our top priority is identifying mechanisms to award college credit to incarcerated participants in SPP certificate programs. Education is the most effective way to reduce recidivism. These certificate programs serve as high quality apprenticeships where participants receive extensive training, education, and experience addressing complex conservation issues, delivering environmental education, or participating in our workshop series. Recently, Dr. Carri LeRoy provided valuable review that informed significant improvements to SPP certifications. We are so grateful she plans to continue providing certification oversight to ensure program quality and consistency. SPP’s certificate recipients are clearly worthy of academic recognition; they demonstrate advanced environmental knowledge and application on a daily basis.

Our programs are unconventional, and retrofitting accreditation to existing practices is a challenge, but this long-time effort seems to be gaining momentum. Acknowledging SPP certificate completion with college credit could serve to complement post-secondary education with allied prison education programs and/or inspire continued education post-release.

As always, thanks for your partnership and support of SPP. We’re so pleased to be offering these programs with you!

Coyote Ridge Corrections Center looks gray, but it’s the “greenest” prison in the nation!

Text and photos by Bethany Shepler, SPP Green Track Coordinator

At first glance, Coyote Ridge Corrections Center (CRCC) does not look very green, but superficial looks can be deceiving; it’s sustainable programming and practices are the most impressive of any correctional facility. CRCC’s main campus is LEED Gold certified, the first prison in the world to hold this accomplishment! (Check out this article about CRCC’s sustainable standard.)

At first glance Coyote Ridge looks very gray. This was especially true when I visited in overcast, rainy weather.

I visited the prison in late November, and had the chance to tour the programs and meet with partners. The sustainable practices of the facility were highly impressive, but even more impressive were the staff who work there and the inmates who have dedicated their lives to learning, education, and environmental activism. I met with the instructors for Roots of Success and we talked about the program, the facility’s annual Environmental Awareness Day, and the many hopes they have for advancing sustainability programming at Coyote Ridge.

I am continually impressed by the people I get to work with, and the inmates and liaisons at Coyote Ridge are exemplary program representatives. I asked what could be done to improve their program and the inmates unanimously agreed “more books and readings about the environment, the sciences, sustainability, environmental activism, and any other subject along those lines.” They want to learn as much as they can and are utilizing every resource they have access to.

Coyote Ridge has developed a “Sustainability Passport” to track and recognize participation. As incarcerated individuals complete a program, they get a stamp on their “passport.” A regular offering is the prison’s Sustainability Lecture Series, similar to the Environmental Workshop Series at two prisons west of the Cascades. They bring in outside experts to deliver lectures and seminars on environmental issues and sustainability. Guests have come from organizations like the Department of Ecology, the local beekeeping association, and experts on the Hanford Site.

This is Bentley. He is a handsome, energetic, lab mix puppy that was brought to the prison with the rest of his litter to be raised and trained by inmate dog handlers. He and his litter-mates have already been adopted, and some by staff members at the prison. Many staff members adopt shelter dogs that the inmates train because they get to know and love the dogs during their time at the facility.

Coyote Ridge hosts a beautiful, thriving dog program. Incarcerated individuals have played a greater leadership role in this program compared to other prison pet programs we know. The dogs that come to the facility are from Benton Franklin Humane Society and Adam County Pet Rescue. They come to the prison because the local shelter doesn’t have the space or time to care for the dogs; because it’s a pregnant dog that can receive inmate handlers’ attention 24 hours a day; or because the animal has been abused and needs extra-gentle care and attention to learn to trust people again. The dogs work with a variety of trainers while they’re at the facility so that they learn to listen and be comfortable around different people.

This is Shannon Meyer. He is one of the inmate dog handlers at CRCC and this was the current dog he’s working with, Rocky. When Rocky came to the prison he wouldn’t let anyone touch him and would get aggressive easily. Mr. Meyer has been working with Rocky for several weeks to get him to trust people and is pleased with his progress. Rocky’s red bandanna signals that he may not respond well to being pet or held by anyone other than his handler, but he happily let me pet him – proof of his progress.

The handlers at CRCC look like they love what they do and see the value in their work with the dogs. One of the handlers, Mr. Meyer, had this to say: “When I got here (in prison) it was just about doing my time, but now, with my dog, everything is about taking care of him and my life is about him.”

I also met these 8-day old puppies who were born in the prison. Their mother came to prison pregnant and gave birth to her puppies in the handler’s cell. Her handler, Mr. Archibald, will care for her and her puppies until they are ready and able to be adopted.

On all fronts, I was impressed by the greenness of programming and attitudes at the prison. Keep up the excellent work, Coyote Ridge!

CRCC during the summer. The picture is looking at some of the units and the courtyard with a rock garden in the center. The gardens at CRCC all feature native plants and rock designs. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

 

Reducing Recidivism, Part 2: Barriers Beyond Bars

By SPP Conservation Nursery Coordinator Jacob Meyers

Last week, I published Reducing Recidivism, Part 1: Why Forgiveness is Key. I chronicled the minor hurdle of putting pen to paper and writing a blog, and how this led to some deeper insight into the challenges of combating recidivism. What follows are more or less my original thoughts on recidivism after attending a summit to address this glaring issue:

On September 21st, five Evergreen students piled into a Prius and slowly started making their way through the traffic on I-5. Normally they would be working in various prisons on various programs, but today they were on their way to Seattle for a shared activity.

Along with two others who would join them at the Jackson Federal Building, this group of individuals work for Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP). They were in Seattle to attend a summit on recidivism. Breaking the Chain: Addressing Recidivism was an event sponsored by the Seattle Federal Executive Board to bring together providers, federal, state, and local agencies working in the reentry field.

The first speaker was the Vice Chair of the Seattle Federal Executive Board, Pritz Navaratnasingam. After some thanks and a short welcome, the second keynote speaker was introduced: Steve Sinclair. Sinclair, Secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections, also serves as Co-Director of SPP. According to him, 31.4% of offenders released in 2013 were readmitted within 3 years. Individuals releasing after their 1st incarceration recidivate at half the rate compared to those releasing after multiple prison terms. Too many people are returning to prison, and the more times a person is in prison, the more likely they are to keep coming back.

Steve Sinclair addressing the summit on September 21, 2017. Photo taken from the Washington State Department of Corrections Facebook Page.

Looking at the national picture, the numbers become even more startling. A study by the National Institute of Justice tracked the release of 404,638 individuals from 30 states found the following:

  • Within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
  • Within five years of release, about three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
  • Of those prisoners who were rearrested, more than half (56.7 percent) were arrested by the end of the first year.

Additionally, about half (49.7%) of prisoners released violated parole or probation or were arrested for a new offense that led to imprisonment within 3 years of release.

If you’re like me, you might be shaking your head, left wondering how these numbers can be true. Fortunately, the Community Services Panel at the Recidivism Summit helped to shed some light on the difficulties one faces upon re-entry. One major factor is mental health. Out of 3.5 million people currently on parole, half of them have substance abuse problems or a mental health diagnosis according to the panel. To compound the problem, oftentimes men and women are not given enough medication upon release – frequently only having a few days or a week supply of potentially critical medication. Transportation can also be a problem. 30 days of bus passes can fly by very quickly when meeting regularly with parole officers, trying to find a job, healthcare, or acquire identification.

One of the biggest obstacles of all can be the stigma surrounding incarceration. Many employers simply won’t hire previously-incarcerated individuals, and many landlords won’t offer housing to people with criminal records. The stigma of incarceration by itself can probably go a long ways to explaining why some people resort back to their old ways of crime and drug use. Mr. Sinclair summed it up succinctly, “It’s not what you do in prison, but how you transition out of prison.”

Finally, during the Employment Panel, John Page offered this insight:

“You can’t have conversations about employment or re-entry without having conversations about race and education.”

Page, a community facilitator at the Fair Work Center (a non-profit dedicated to helping workers achieve fair employment), has over 20 years of experience working on issues of race and social justice, stressed that education is a major factor in determining who ends up in prison in the first place. Unfortunately, U.S. public schools have been failing minority students for quite sometime. And recent research shows that in many school districts, the gap between white students and their black peers is significant (Reardon et al., 2017). In Seattle Public Schools, black students test more than 3-and-a-half grade levels behind white students (Seattle Times).

With all of these challenges, it becomes a little more apparent as to why recidivism rates are so high. Upon leaving Breaking the Chain: Addressing Recidivism, I was left with several thoughts circulating through my head:

  1. As a society, we’re still not doing enough to mitigate recidivism.
  2. There is a critical window upon initial release from incarceration, a short time in which most people “make it or break it”.
  3. With more than 50 organizations and well over 100 individuals attending, Breaking the Chain: Addressing Recidivism was inspirational mainly in showing that there are countless individuals working tirelessly to reshape how we as a society think about incarnation and re-entry.
  4. The work we do at SPP is extremely important in not only providing technical skills and job experience before release, but also by imparting the value of education, curiosity, and critical thinking.

It’s a daunting situation, but it’s a challenge that must be met. Thankfully, I have great company and inspiring allies. I am sticking with it.

On December 13th, 2017, Conservation Nursery technicians at Stafford Creek Corrections Center and I are preparing 70 some trays for sowing. Photo Credit: Bethany Shepler

Technicians Shabazz Malekk, Terral Lewis, Aaron Bander, Bui Hung (left to right) and I are discussing our sowing plan for the day on December 13th, 2017. Photo Credit: Bethany Shepler

Shabazz Malekk, Aaron Bander, and I are determining the number of seeds to sow in each plug on December 13, 2017. Photo Credit: Bethany Shepler

SPP Graduate Research Assistants outside of the Jackson Federal Building in Seattle, WA on September 21, 2017. From left to right: Amanda Mintz, Keegan Curry, Bethany Shepler, Sadie Gilliom, Jessica Brown, Alexandra James, and Jacob Meyers.

SPP’s new Mission Statement

by Kelli Bush, SPP Director for Evergreen

An incarcerated man waves to visitors across the Diversity Garden at Airway Heights Corrections Center. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

During breeding season, a technician weighs an adult Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly. The highly collaborative program is hosted by Mission Creek Corrections Center. Photo by Keegan Curry.

We are so pleased! SPP partners from Evergreen and Washington State Department of Corrections have completed updates to SPP’s mission and vision statements. The new text represents greater emphases on education and change, acknowledgement of current environmental and justice system challenges, values shared by SPP partners, and a more succinct, stand-alone mission statement.

 

Mission: We empower sustainable change by bringing nature, science, and environmental education into prisons.

 

Roots of Success instructors and graduates pose for a class photo at a graduation ceremony. Photo by DOC staff.

Vision: In response to the dual crises of ecological degradation and mass incarceration, we aim to reduce recidivism while improving human well-being and ecosystem health. SPP brings together incarcerated individuals, scientists, corrections staff, students, and program partners to promote education, conserve biodiversity, practice sustainability, and help build healthy communities. Together, we reduce the environmental, economic, and human costs of prisons.

 

We will update our website to reflect these changes in the near future.

Reducing Recidivism, Part 1: Why Forgiveness is Key

by SPP Conservation Nursery Coordinator Jacob Meyers

Jackson Federal Building ballroom. Photo taken from Washington Department of Corrections Facebook Page.

Many months ago, I attended eye-opening summit on recidivism. At the time, I was inspired. I was inspired by my coworkers, whom I was just getting to know and learning how much we had in common. I was inspired by all of the individuals from many different communities and counties, countless organizations and government agencies, and all working in some shape or capacity to reduce recidivism. And I was inspired by a formally incarcerated individual, Tarra Simmons, who had recently learned she was not going to be allowed to take the BAR despite graduating with honors from Seattle University’s law school, but was determined to continue fighting for that right. (She would subsequently get that right a few months later in November, 2017)

As a part of being a program coordinator for SPP, we are asked to write a few blogs every year. Writing about the summit, I thought, was the perfect opportunity. So I did. It took me a while, but I came up with a draft and shared it with my supervisor. He gave me some feedback.

At SPP’s Climate Symposium on October 18, 2017, I am facilitating a workshop with inmates at Stafford Creek Corrections Center. My original blog still a work in process… Photo credit: Ricky Osborne

I never followed up to make the corrections or move the process forward. I kept putting it off and prioritizing other things. Before I knew it, it was January and I was meeting with my supervisor to review how I am doing in the position. The blog came up, and I couldn’t deny I had dropped the proverbial ball. I felt bad about it, like I was a somewhat of failure. Pretty much every one of my coworkers had written a blog in that time. A few wrote multiple!

However, to my supervisor’s credit, he didn’t overly lambast me or make me feel worse. He acknowledged that I had dropped the ball, and I could tell he was disappointed. But, he told me, “Well, we’re here now. What are you going to do about it? How are you going to move forward?”

Since then, a few things came in focus for me. This journey—while humbling—pales in comparison to the journeys and hardships our post-release incarcerated population must traverse. Additionally, redemption of any kind must involve some type of forgiveness. Usually when we make a mistake it costs other people something and we must ask forgiveness from them. Yet, often even more challenging, we must forgive ourselves to be able to move forward. My supervisor forgave my shortcoming and in turn afforded me redemption through a second chance and new strategy to get this blog done. In turn, I was able to put my own insecurities aside – my feelings of failure and inadequacy – and find the modicum of courage to get this done.

Overall, when reflecting on my time at SPP, the recidivism summit back in September, and the minor challenges of writing this blog, I know we as a society must do better to truly forgive our incarcerated population. To forgive their transgressions and shortcomings and allow them the possibility of redemption. I know it may seem silly to compare writing a blog to a criminal offense. But if I can attach so much worth and self-value to something so small (as many of us do), imagine the emotional and psychological journey incarcerated people might go through during their stay in prison and upon reentry?

Very methodically compacting soil during a day of sowing on December 13th, 2017. Photo Credit: Bethany Shepler

On December 13th, 2017, Aaron Bander (left) and I are discussing how the sowing process is going or possibly upcoming college football games. Photo Credit: Bethany Shepler

Next week, I will post my original reflections on the recidivism summit.

Let yourself germinate

One of the sage-grouse images Mr Jenkins created to develop the Sagebrush in Prisons logo.

In addition to his work as a Sagebrush technician at the Washington State Penitentiary, Lawrence Jenkins is also an amazing artist. In fact Lawrence was the artist behind the logo for the Sagebrush in Prisons Project! This post is his letter of reflection following the Climate Change Symposium held at Stafford Creek Corrections Center this past October.

Hello World,

My name is Lawrence, I’m from Seattle, Washington and I’ve been in prison since the age of 18. I am now 29 years old and with 20 years left to serve in the state and a possible life sentence pending in the federal prison system. My crimes involve law enforcement and I have a long history of violent crimes/gang violence. Along with this I struggle with P.T.S.D., social anxiety, and depression. As unfortunate as all of this sounds, just imagine an entire neighborhood swarming with individuals just like me.

For now, let’s focus on the question: “How do we overcome race/class in order to do something about global warming, climate change, starvation, extinction, preservation/conservation, disease, etc?” 

A “quick” drawing he made of three bee-eaters.

I would like to use myself for example…

I completely destroyed my life. I lost everything (which was not much), I even made attempts on my life. I hurt so many other lives. I was probably the most toxic living thing on this planet. Why? Because I wanted to make a difference so bad that I told myself that “right or wrong, I’m going to put a end to all of the bad that is happening to my family, my friends, and my community.” I had good intentions but the way I went about it was all wrong.

So when they tried to bury me, they didn’t know I was a seed [paraphrase from a Got Green presentation]. Unfortunately it took all of this for me to finally “germinate”. To finally realize just how loving, caring and compassionate I am. Just like every other violent gang member, drug dealer, or robber – trust and believe those individuals are willing to die in order to help their people. But the only difference between you and them is the very soil that you are rooted in.

With the global problem we face today, there’s no need to “up-root” people of different race/class in order to address this issue. Just amend the soil in each community just like you did in each prison.

Lawrence Jenkins at work in the sagebrush nursery last summer. Photo by Gretchen Graber.

Mr Jenkins made this drawing of a black-tailed jack rabbit to raise funds for Tapteal Greenway. This species of rabbit lives in a protected piece of land supported by Tapteal.

Climate Change Symposium in Prison: Incarcerated people creating solutions

Text by Erin Lynam, Workshop Series Coordinator
Photos by Ricky Osborne

On October 18th at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, we held the first ever Climate Change Symposium in a prison. The five hour event brought together 91 environmental students, eight SPP-Evergreen staff members, five guest speakers, and five DOC staff members.

First up was Mike Burnham from Thurston Regional Planning Council (TRPC) who gave a presentation about region-wide planning and action for climate change resilience. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

 

TRPC asked participants to break into small groups to play their board game, Resilience Road. Each group collectively selected and prioritized responses to a climate change challenge for a hypothetical community. This small group included SPP Co-Director Kelli Bush. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

The exchange of ideas and insights was a highlights of the symposium. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Students had the chance to show just how knowledgeable they are regarding environmental issues. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

But the game wasn’t all work, it was fun too! Photo by Ricky Osborne.

TRPC graciously donated a copy of Resilience Road to Stafford Creek Corrections Center so that students can continue to play and inform their work as environmental stewards. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

During the symposium students were given an opportunity to mingle and engage with guest speakers and SPP staff about climate change. Here they talk to SPP’s former Turtle Program Coordinator Sadie Gilliam. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Next up was incarcerated environmentalist and longtime SPP participant, Toby Erhart. He shared what climate change means to him and what actions he’s taking to address it. He is an active member in the conservation nursery program, beekeeping, and the composting program at SCCC. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

After staff, guests, and students had a lively discussion over a shared lunch, members of Got Green gave a presentation. Johnny Mao, Johnny Fikru, and James Williams of Got Green presented on Got Green’s social and environmental justice work in low income and communities of color. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

During Got Green’s presentation, James Williams stated that even though the students may be apart from their community, they were not forgotten and he considered them part of his community. This acknowledgement of oneness is an incredibly rare moment in the prison environment and was moving to witness. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

To wrap up the symposium and reflect on everything they learned, SPP invited the students to share what they found most important and what steps to take next. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

To have the opportunity to spend the day learning alongside individuals who are emphatically committed to keeping our planet healthy was inspiring. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letter from one of the Roots Master Trainers

By Bethany Shepler, SPP Green Track Program Coordinator and
Eugene Youngblood, Roots of Success Master Instructor

Because Youngblood is a Master Trainer for Roots of Success, he can certify new instructors. Youngblood certified Reyes (left) and Berube (center) for the program at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in 2015 and 2017; Reyes and Berube have facilitated 7 classes of Roots students. Photo by DOC staff.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting one of our Master Trainers for Roots of Success in Washington State, Eugene Youngblood. He recently relocated from Coyote Ridge Corrections Center to Monroe Correctional Complex and spoke at a class graduation in the Sustainable Practices Lab (SPL). I was struck by his words because, not only were they relevant to the people assembled, but to so many other people inside and outside prisons. He said “to give praise is to assign value and the people here need to know that they are worthy of value.” Too often in our world, people tend to believe they don’t have value. Perhaps Youngblood is on to something: Maybe by assigning value to those we’ve locked away, we can began to change the world.

 

A Roots of Success class graduation at CRCC in 2016; Youngblood is at the far right. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

I want to convey more of Mr. Youngblood’s wisdom, and have a letter from him to share:

The great George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to him. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Sustainability in prison sounds like an oxymoron to most people, I am sure. Prisons going green and prisoners being at the forefront of this movement sounds unreasonable, if not outright unbelievable. Yet, here we are at the Monroe Correctional Complex – Washington State Reformatory Unit, attempting to adapt the world to us, understanding that all progress depends on us… “The unreasonable”.

At our SPL (Sustainability Practice Lab) we are supervised and supported by Correctional Officer Jeffrey Swan, who has done an amazing job creating an atmosphere that is both professional and positive. In these positions, we are gaining valuable job skills and invaluable knowledge that will help us in our quest for successful reentry. I would be remiss if I did not say how much support we get for programs such as this from administration here. CPM Williams continues to be the unseen helping hand, extending to us the support we need to continue the work we are able to do, even when we don’t know how far she has gone to make this all possible. We have a thriving vermiculture program, along with wheelchair and bicycle restoration programs. The wheelchairs are refurbished and restored then donated to those in need across the world. Our last three shipments went to Ghana, Guatemala, and Thailand. The bicycles are refurbished and restored then gifted to local Boys & Girls clubs, YMCA, and to the local police department for their bike drive giveaway. On top of all this work, we are learning at the same time. We have just completed the second Roots of Success environmental literacy class for Monroe Correctional Complex.

The Roots of Success program has become a real agent of change for us in prison. If you want to help people change their actions, the first thing you have to do is help them change their thoughts. How do you help someone change his or her thoughts? You provide them with more information and then you give them the tools to turn that information into knowledge. Real change takes place from the inside out – what is under the ground produces what is above the ground. Thus, we have “Roots” of success and not “Fruits” of success. Environmental literacy helps us understand the impact we have on the environment. Roots of Success helps take that to the next level with prisoners; we are learning about ourselves and the impact we have, not just on our immediate environment (Prison) but the impact we have on our friends, families, our own communities, and ultimately our extended environment (Society). We are helping to make prison sustainable, helping to contribute to the sustainability of society, and all the while helping ourselves become better people in the process by taking what we know and turning that into what we do. In the true spirit of the quote by George Bernard Shaw, we are being “unreasonable” and thus producing progress in THE world and in OUR world as well.

Youngblood (far right) stands with another graduating class from CRCC, in 2014. Photo by SPP Staff.

Inmates Assemble Life-Saving Clean Drinking Water Systems

By Rachel Friederich, DOC Communications
Originally published to Washington State Department of Corrections Newsroom

WALLA WALLA – More than 3.4 million people die each year from diseases caused by poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water, according to the World Health Organization.

A group of inmates is doing their part to help change that.

Inmate crews at the Washington State Penitentiary’s Sustainable Practices Lab (SPL) transform discarded and donated materials into usable items such as refurbished bicycles and furniture. The lab’s latest venture is a new type of water filtration system that will be sent to developing countries plagued with waterborne illnesses.

Inmates form an assembly line around a table surrounded by materials needed to build SafeTap water systems.

Inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary’s Sustainable Practices Lab assemble SafeTap water systems. The systems will be used to provide clean water to people living in developing countries. (Photo courtesy of Washington State Penitentiary Sustainable Practices Lab)

The SafeTap water filtration system is the brainchild of Andy Pierce, a former plumbing contractor who founded the California-based non-profit, Project 41. A volunteer humanitarian trip to Haiti following a deadly earthquake in 2010 inspired Pierce to start the organization. He’s taken subsequent trips to developing countries worldwide that often have hospitals and health clinics where water supplies are contaminated with harmful bacteria.

His humanitarian work involved installing large-scale water systems. While he was doing this, he came up with the idea of creating a small, portable water filter made from pipes, fittings and valves. The filters are stuffed with hundreds of tiny straws made of a hollow-fiber membrane that blocks bacteria. The SafeTap devices can be connected to existing water filtration systems to produce clean water. His invention can filter up to three gallons of water per minute.

“The Sustainable Practices Lab was just a huge answer to prayer,” Pierce said. “I was impressed with how well these guys have taken up the cause and keep pushing forward toward excellence and refining the (assembly) process. I’m really blown away.”

Impact of Partnership

The partnership between Pierce and the penitentiary resulted from a chance meeting at a national conference last year on environmental sustainability. The conference, held in Albany, Ore., had dozens of vendors from around the country. Pierce was one of the exhibitors.

Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Christopher McGill and Robert Branscum, two correctional specialists who oversee the penitentiary’s Sustainability Practices Lab, stopped at Pierce’s booth and learned about the SafeTap system.

At the time, Pierce was running his plumbing business by day and building SafeTap units at his home by night, but production time was slow, McGill said. “That’s when I told him about the Washington State Penitentiary’s Sustainable Practices Lab.”

For the past few months, a crew of nine inmates has been assembling SafeTap water filtration systems.

Project 41 funds the materials with donations from a private foundation, Pierce said.

Pierce ships the materials to the penitentiary. Inmates assemble the filtration systems. Once assembled, the systems are shipped to countries in need of clean water.

Inmates have assembled more than 150 SafeTap units. Thirty-five of the units have been sent to various countries, including eight to Puerto Rico to assist with Hurricane Maria relief efforts. A total of 115 units are heading to the island of Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands and more are headed to the East African Republic of Uganda and Ghana.

Sustainable Practices Lab’s Kieth Parkins has transformed his life sentence into a life of service. He expresses his empathy for families needing clean water by building water purification systems that will meet their needs. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

While the SafeTap systems are saving lives overseas, the partnership is transforming lives at the penitentiary.

Kieth Parkins, 49, is serving a life sentence for multiple robbery convictions. He knows his actions in prison won’t have any impact on the length of his sentence, but the project has helped him find something meaningful behind bars.

“As a prisoner, I have always felt like I was a drain on society,” Parkins said. “But now, through the Sustainable Practices Lab and the water department, I am able to be a part of something that is literally saving lives throughout the world. In the process, it’s saving my life as well.”

Editor’s note: The SafeTap water filtration system was also a finalist in the 2017 Chasing Genius contest, sponsored by National Geographic. Entrants competed against other groundbreaking humanitarian projects for a cash prize. Watch the video entry with inmate interviews.

Finding Elysium

Words and Color-Pencil Illustrations by Michael Gorski, Conservation Technician, Stafford Creek Corrections Center
Editor’s note: Seems like Mr. Gorski gives SPP too much credit, but his beautiful work needs to be shared!

I was introduced to my artistic life in 1959. I lived in a dysfunctional family that was without love. However, I was blessed to be in a small country-town of about 500 people in the woods of Central Washington. Mt. Adams was the view from the front yard. A beautiful mountain creek flowed serenely through our town. Our town was five blocks by seven blocks in diameter, so, within minutes, I could escape the prison of my childhood and wander into the realm of the country-stream that became my Elysium.

It was in the summer of 1959 that my grandfather came to stay with us for a summer visit. He came to the United States from Russia in 1912 where he had been an artist, musician, and woodcarver. He noticed that every morning I would wander off (sneak out) of the house long before the madness began. He asked one day if he could join me in my country, Elysium. That summer, my grandfather taught me how to draw nature using colored chalk, charcoal, and colored pencils. But this was not just an education on art. This was a lesson in recognizing the inherent quality and basic constitution of all things – all things that flowed the waters, flew in the air, and grew in the ground. He taught me that Mother Nature’s garden is God’s gift; and this countenance is what will protect me.

Once my father and older siblings found out what I was doing and saw my art work, they laughed at me and teased me mercilessly. I continued on through life for the next 51 years keeping my artwork and love for the outdoors private and personal. I was so self-conscious that I went on secret camping trips that I hid from my family. I even hid my love for flowers and gardening by acting as if the work was for my wife and daughters. I felt that I had to hide what brought me peace.

Then, serendipitously, a guest lecturer [Jeanne Dodds] from the Sustainability in Prisons Project held a workshop to teach how to draw butterflies, birds, and other nature imagery with colored pencils. I was at once transported to my childhood Elysium. Working with the Sustainability in Prisons Project erased the need to keep my artwork and devotion to nature a secret. Not only was I taught how to coax seeds to germinate, but my sense of self germinated in the process. Working to ensure the health and survival of plants became the focus of my life. Through tending vegetable and flower gardens, caring for honeybees, learning about greenhouses and aquaponics, and cultivating wild prairie seeds, it became okay to share my love for these things. It became okay to share my artwork for the first time in my life. I am now drawing pictures of birds for my daughters and my grandchildren. We as a family are now discussing nature – mountains, woods, rivers, camping, hiking, and gardening. An old man has the tools he needs to succeed in life and share all he is with those he loves.

I can now say that I am proud of my artwork. My hope is that anyone who looks upon one of my drawings can feel the sense of peace inside myself and the birds that I draw. Thank you for teaching an old man about life. Carpe diem!