Category Archives: Prison Life

Turtles plus woodpeckers plus…

Text by Jessica Brown, SPP Turtle Program Coordinator, Philip Fischer, U.S. Forest Service volunteer and Adam Mlady, Biological Science Technician.
Photos by Jessica Brown

Biological Science Technician Adam Mlady holding two of the Western Pond Turtles currently housed at Cedar Creek Correctional Center.

Cedar Creek Corrections Center (Cedar Creek) was home to the very first endangered animal program in a prison: they raised and released hundreds of Oregon spotted frogs from 2009-2015. In 2018, ecological conservation at Cedar Creek is thriving and evolving to encompass a small array of conservation and sustainability programs. Offering an array of programs allows us to partner with a larger group of incarcerated technicians; there are five at this time, and we plan to add a few more. All participants will have a new position title of Biological Science Technicians, and will receive education and training in the  turtle, beekeeping and woodpecker programs, and—later on—a new aquaponics program.

Turtles

Cedar Creek hosts endangered pond turtles that need daily attention; from Technician Adam Mlady’s writing last month, “currently we have two females, one male, and are expecting seven more to be dropped off later today…Taking care of them is very rewarding. I get a sense of unity and accomplishment in ensuring they are clean and fed, and working them back to health. It’s even a sustainable project to feed them! They eat a mix of goodies, but one of the days the pond turtles get mealworms, which we grow and harvest ourselves. Eggs to larva to pupae to beetle, we are hands-on (gloved of course!) the whole way through.”

Woodpeckers

USFS trainers, SPP coordinator, and participants of the woodpecker nest monitoring project training pose with bird specimens.

In November, the Woodpecker Nest Monitoring Project was launched with a two-day training for all five turtle technicians, four greenhouse workers, and two other interested individuals. The purpose of the Woodpecker Nest Monitoring Video Review is to support a multi-year research project through the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) focused on identification of nest predators.

Woodpeckers are a keystone species that provide cavities not only for their own nesting use, but also for a broad spectrum of secondary cavity users including small mammals and other birds. Video footage comes from cameras operating 24/7 at cavity nests. This is the only sure way to document nest depredation, however, reviewing the enormous amount of video footage requires an equally enormous amount of reviewer time. In order to accurately monitor video footage, correctly identify species, and describe animal behaviors, reviewers need considerable training.

Biological Science Technician Modesto Silva reviewing video footage of a Northern Flicker cavity nest. This video station sits atop the mealworm rearing bins for the western pond turtle program.

Participants at Cedar Creek received six hours of education and training from Teresa Lorenz, USFS biologist and Phil Fischer, USFS volunteer, covering woodpecker, raptor, song bird, and small mammal identification; background information relating to the project, including project protocol and species behavior descriptions; and monitoring and data recording techniques. In the past, video monitoring has only been performed by undergraduate students, however, collaboration between USFS and SPP has made it possible to also bring this type of education and experience into prison.

And coming soon…

Cedar Creek has long had a productive greenhouse, including a small aquaponics system. The old aquaponics will be replaced with a more productive system designed by Symbiotic Cycles LLC, an Olympia-based company dedicated to the application of regenerative food production through aquaponics. The new design will support production of fresh greens year round for use in the kitchen.

Technician Mlady has said, “I’m really excited about the upcoming aquaponics pond we will be building. It is huge, and tucked away safely up in our camp’s greenhouse. Once we get the plumbing correctly set up, the koi fish will be able to fertilize our selected plants and vegetables. Brilliant system.” Aquaponics training will start sometime this March, and the system should be up and running soon after.

Partners in endangered species conservation for Cedar Creek Corrections Center, from left to right: Technician, John Fitzpatrick, Superintendent Douglas Cole, Loretta Adams (SPP Liaison), Philip Fischer (U.S. Forest Service), Kelli Bush (SPP Co-Director, Teresa Lorenz (U.S. Forest Service), Technician William Anglemyer). Photo by Jessica Brown.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Long Live the Kings!

By Joslyn Rose Trivett, SPP Education and Outreach Manager & Erin Lynam, SPP Environmental Workshop Series Coordinator

This past December, the workshop series brought salmon to Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW). Long Live the Kings has been devoted to restoring wild salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest for more than three decades. Executive Director Jacques White shared his passion for wild salmon, and discussed ways to be part of bringing home a keystone species. For those who are unable to see the salmon first-hand, it’s all the more important to bring them to the classroom. For 90 minutes, all attending could immerse themselves in science and action for the sake of our region’s most beautiful and iconic fish.

Jacques shared excellent underwater footage of wild salmon. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Jacques was an engaging, inspiring speaker, and shared many wonders and the mysteries of salmon. A huge mystery is why Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead populations in the Salish Sea have declined so drastically in recent years.  A new partnership between Long Live the Kings and Canada’s  Pacific Salmon Foundation will conduct research throughout the Salish Sea; the effort is called the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project and brings together an international team of scientists from dozens of organizations to assess factors such as temperature increases, loss of food and habitat, and disease. He said that fishing is not a big threat to salmon; the problem has to be bigger than that.

Screenshot from Long Live the King’s Survive the Sound webpage.

Most fun was learning about the fundraising campaign, Survive the Sound. Supporters adopt an individual fish (or two, or three…), assign it an avatar, and watch its real-time progress online. Jacques shared video clips from last year’s campaign: one fish was not able to get past the Hood Canal Bridge 🙁 ; a second was stalled by the Bridge, but eventually found successful passage 🙂

Similar to SPP’s aquaponics nursery that grow plants for Oregon spotted frog habitat, Long Live the Kings has talked about starting polyculture nurseries to rear multiple species together for food and to improve water quality and habitat. We might know some folks who could work there…!

More photos from the workshop, thanks to Ricky Osborne photography:

As always, the students had lots of questions and ideas to share. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

From the Kings’ website, Jacques says: “They’re at the heart of our region’s culture, history, and economy. Alongside towering evergreens, snow-capped peaks, and vast expanses of open water, salmon make the northwest The Northwest. “

Rosalina Edmondson attends nearly every SPP workshop. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Workshop students Samantha Morgan and Lisa Woolsey are also technicians in the SPP Prairie Conservation Nursery at WCCW. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Long Live the Kings! Photo by Ricky Osborne.

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.

Thank you, Fairy Godparents!

Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) was lucky to receive several year-end donations, most of them from anonymous donors. These gifts are substantial enough that we can fund new scientific equipment and printed resources for a few programs—these much wanted enhancements will boost the quality of education in those programs.

We are dazzled by the unsolicited generosity. We wish we could thank each of you individually, and also appreciate the mystery of having unknown supporters. Know that we love you and thank you!

Anytime you want to donate to SPP, we can put those funds to great use: please see our Get Involved page to contribute.

New Biological Science Technician Position, and One of the Newest is Feeling Thankful

By Adam Mlady, Biological Science Technician, Cedar Creek Corrections Center. Photos by Jessica Brown, SPP Coordinator

Editor’s Note: Participation in the turtle program at Cedar Creek is evolving to take on new, complementary areas of study and contribution: woodpecker nest monitoring project and an aquaponics pilot project. To represent and accommodate for these additional projects, we hired more technicians and changed their titles to “Biological Science Technician,” We are very happy to welcome Adam Mlady to the technician team; here he shares his gratitude and thoughts on his new position. 

Sustainablog

Biological Science Technician, Adam Mlady holding two of the Western Pond Turtles currently housed at Cedar Creek Correctional Center.

November 27, 2017

It’s one week into my new job with the Sustainability in Prisons Project as a Biological Science Technician, and so far I have been pleasantly surprised at just how great this assignment really is. My team members have been very welcoming, and are a wealth of knowledge to pick from. Working for Ms. Brown is inspiring, and I’ve been lucky to be chosen to do this work. I have spent some days of charting the habits of the northwestern woodpeckers; there is tons of video footage, so I’ll always have job security!

Also, the endangered pond turtles need our attention; currently we have two females, one male, and are expecting 7 more to be dropped off later today. We all arrived early this morning in the program area, and are eagerly awaiting our new aquatic friends. Taking care of them is very rewarding. I get a sense of unity and accomplishment in ensuring they are clean and fed, and working them back to health. It’s even a sustainable project to feed them! They eat a mix of goodies, but one of the days the pond turtles get mealworms, which we grow and harvest ourselves. Eggs to larva to pupae to beetle, we are hands-on (gloved of course!) the whole way through.

I’m really excited about the upcoming aquaponics pond we will be building. It is huge, and tucked away safely up in our camp’s greenhouse. Once we get the plumbing correctly set up, the koi fish will be able to fertilize our selected plants and vegetables. Brilliant system. I’ve seen it in action on a much smaller scale back at home with my beautiful wife’s beta fish successfully sustaining bamboo, kale, and dragon plants. It’s pretty sweet to be reminded of home while doing my job here.

Biological Science Technician team at Cedar Creek from left to right: John Fitzpatrick, Modesto Silva, Jessica Brown (SPP Coordinator), James Meservey, William Anglemyer, Adam Mlady.

December 7, 2017

Brrrrr…it’s cold! The new addition of the space heater in the turtle hut is a blessing though. I’m a few weeks into my stint as a Biological Science Technician and finding my groove. This is hands down the best job available in the whole camp. Watching my woodpecker videos in the turtle hut, with classic rock thrumming in the background, comfy chair, fresh coffee, and the basking skylight is by far the best part of my day. It’s become my fortress of solitude, or my batcave: I’m truly at peace here.

Adam Mlady recording activity of a Northern Flicker cavity nest in an old snag.

Video footage of a Northern Flicker leaving its nest.

Putting in work with my fine feathered friends, I’m witnessing some excellent parenting skills by these endangered avian aerialists. To them: family, home, and the future mean the world to woodpeckers. That’s admirable. Every time I see the mama and the papa woodpeckers in action, feeding, cleaning, defending their fledglings and nest; it warms my heart. They work together as a team wonderfully, as nature has created a well-oiled machine. They split the duties masterfully, and complement each other’s attributes with all their hard work. So thorough, like a living, breathing, flying, drumming version of a discount-double check–they are that good.

It feels great knowing that the work I’m putting in here will help keep these families together, and lasting throughout the ages.

It’s not all just bonding with the birds, with my head in the clouds. No, the turtles also are well taken care of by my Biological Science Technician team. The new turtle group we got last week are loving the warmth of the basking lights and the water heaters, that’s for sure! We all love our heaters. These new female pond turtles are so little, but thankfully the older, larger turtles haven’t been too hard on their itty-bitty shells. The care they are getting here is amazing, and their shell damage is showing its rehabilitation as the days progress. Another stellar week. We’ll keep up our end, and keep you posted. Until next time…

 

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.

Farm to Table Celebration at WCC

Text and photos by SPP Prairie Conservation Nursery Coordinator  Alexandra James

Harvest Pizzas line up.

The Farm-to-Table concept is making headway in Washington state prisons. In general, the concept promotes the use of local food in restaurants, schools, and community centers adjacent to regional farms. This growing season at Washington Corrections Center, SPP’s Conservation Nursery crew tended the vegetable plots adjacent to their violet beds; the crew sowed, grew, and harvested hundreds of pounds of food to support the local food banks, making farm-to-table possible for people with the greatest need.

SPP hosted a pizza party for the crew in celebration of their efforts. Pizza toppings and salad fixings were harvested from vegetables growing in the horticulture garden. The crew worked together to create colorful pizzas to share amongst the SPP nursery crew and DOC staff.

Colorful Pizza topped with edible flowers.

The vegetable garden served as an educational forum, where crew members learned about organic agriculture and the implications of food systems in the United States. Hard work and long hours were a common attribute needed to sustain the gardens. Along with the produce from the horticulture program, WCC produced over 24,414 lbs. under the leadership of Benri Deanon, Grounds Supervisor. The WCC staff and crew members did an incredible job working together to support their local community outside of the prison walls.

The celebration not only marked an important milestone for the gardening season; it was also a joyful transition for SPP staff in the Conservation Nursery. Joey Burgess, SPP coordinator for two years, is moving on to be a horticulture and literacy instructor at WCC. He will be working for Centralia College and will bring his dedication and expertise full time to incarcerated students.

Alexandra James will step in as the new SPP coordinator at WCC. Alex joins the SPP team with experience in environmental education and is looking forward to sharing her knowledge and passion for nature with the WCC crew. She hopes to enhance her understanding of environmental education by engaging, empowering, and learning from our incarceration community.

Salad with kale, collard greens, lettuce, edible flowers, chives, and tomatoes.

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!