Category Archives: Prison Life

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!

Busy as a Bee at WSP

By Bethany Shepler, SPP Green Track Coordinator

Group photo of program sponsors Jonathan Fischer and Ron Benjamin, professional beekeeper Mona Chambers, and a class of inmate beekeepers. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Amid the razor wire and blocky buildings of the Washington State Penitentiary, you might be surprised to see beautiful blooming flowers and thousands of bees busily bumbling through their work. From catching feral swarms, to breeding their own queens, the beekeeping program at Washington State Penitentiary (WSP) has established themselves as a successful and inspirational model.

The program began about 5 years ago when three feral hives were discovered on the grounds. Some of the staff was interested in raising bees and contacted Rob Coffee, an experienced beekeeper. Unfortunately, those first few hives didn’t last the year, but still it was enough of an introduction to catch the interest of staff and inmates.

Over the years, there have been staffing changes and many generations of bees have come and gone. Rob Jackson, now Associate Superintendent, first pushed for the bee program when he noticed those feral hives on site. These days the program is run by Jonathan Fischer and Ron Benjamin, both corrections staff and experienced beekeepers. Last year, a professional beekeeper and founder of See the Bees, Mona Chambers, donated her time to come teach a class of beekeepers at WSP; since then she has kept in contact with them monthly and has supported program innovations such as natural, effective ways of mite control. The program also receives some input from the same Master beekeeper (from Millers Homestead) who supports the beekeeping program at Airway Heights Corrections Center.

A class at WSP working with bees. When asked about the beekeeping course, one student said “I love it. It’s so exciting. Honored to be a part of it, really. If they were going to transfer me next to my family, I’d tell them to wait until this was done.” Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Jonathan and Ron teach WSP’s class to certify inmates as apprentice beekeepers has 15 slots, and clearly this isn’t enough to meet demand – there were 90 inmates who wanted to take the class this year! The course is split between in-class sessions and hands-on working with hives. Their goal of the program is for inmates to gain sufficient experience and journeyman level-certification so they could teach the classes themselves. Even in the early days of the bee program, staff wanted this to be a program that inmates could be fully involved in and eventually run.

Currently, WSP has 12 healthy hives, and that’s even though only 5 made it through the winter. To boost their numbers, they catch feral swarms or buy packages of bees. The one thing that WSP won’t buy are queens—they can rely on Ron Benjamin’s experience as a commercial beekeeper in which he learned how to breed queens. By breeding their own queens, they can choose to favor certain traits and genetics beneficial to their environment.

A class of students, program sponsors Jonathan Fischer and Ron Benjamin, and professional beekeeper Mona Chambers inspect the hives before opening them to check on WSP’s bees. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

The WSP beekeeping program’s main goal is to help incarcerated individuals build skills as productive members of society, but they have many other things they want to accomplish, too. They want to educate inmates and staff about the beekeeping crisis on the west coast, and do their part to reverse the bee shortage; they want to give inmates opportunity to experience the serenity that comes with beekeeping; and—above all—teach inmates a marketable skill to have when they’re released.

As the season wraps up, WSP will harvest their honey and package it in jars that are decorated in a seal designed by this years’ graduated beekeepers. Once they finish harvesting, they will begin to wind down for the winter. We at SPP look forward to more continued success and inspiration from the busy beekeepers of WSP.

An inmate beekeeper inspects a frame outside of a hive at WSP. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Bright colors speak loudly for the hard work being done at Stafford Creek!

Photos and text by Joey Burgess, SPP Conservation Nursery Coordinator for Stafford Creek Corrections Center (SCCC)

In SCCC’s nursery, technicians sow wild seeds for prairie restoration; here, a technician works with Scouler’s campion (Silene scouleri) seeds.

For nursery technicians, much of the year is spent inside greenhouses where they can be found sowing prairie seeds and tending vegetable starts. Weeding, watering, and controlling insects are the main duties — duties that generally do not yield much glory. However, when summer arrives, the facility resembles a hive that buzzes with activity, color, and pride.

Prairie plants move from greenhouses to outdoors as they mature. Vegetables are unearthed, cleaned, weighed, and sent to local food banks. Flowers are blooming as they are sent to various gardens around the facility. And amidst all of that – cultural & education events.

In photos, here is a sampling of the summer’s activities and harvests.

(From left) Shabazz Malakk, Bui Hung, Aaron Bander, and Travis Newell just harvested beets from one of their vibrant vegetable gardens near the Conservation Nursery.

Shabazz Malakk looks for ripe strawberries in the lush garden of the Conservation Nursery.

Terrell Lewis carefully moves established prairie plants to meet the needs of the next stage of growth – to a greenhouse with different watering conditions.

(From left) Joshua Hieronyms, Toby Erhart, Travis Newell, Bien Nguyen, and Mark Sherwood share salad and sustainability and the SCCC cultural event.

SPP-model programs: Possibilities for Japan

Text and photos by Atsuko Otsuka, freelance journalist and author, consultant for the Guide Dog Puppy-Raising Program and the Horse Program at Shimane Asahi Rehabilitation Program Center in Japan

Dog handlers of Freedom Tails at Stafford Creek Corrections Center pose for a photo.

I’ve been working with the Prison Pet Partnership at Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) for years, and I’ve become fascinated with the Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP). I’ve written several books about the benefits of animal programs in correctional facilities, and I’ve successfully worked with the Japanese Ministry of Justice to establish the first dog programs in Japanese correctional facilities. My goal is to find ways to create more programs in Japan similar to those of SPP. I strongly believe that they offer a way to improve our society, the lives of our incarcerated populations, and the planet.

Technicians at the Sustainable Practice Lab at Monroe Correctional Complex proudly point to the “Thank you” poster from the recipients.

A nursing mother cat and her kittens are all cared for in the handler’s cell at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women.

Over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of visiting many correctional facilities in Washington where SPP is an important part of their programming and culture. My journey began with WCCW, Cedar Creek and Larch Corrections Centers. This year, I added visits to Mission Creek, Stafford Creek, Airway Heights and Monroe Correctional Complex. During these visits, I saw many wonderful programs that are expanding the worlds of the people incarcerated there, by giving them both environmental education and the opportunity to become better stewards of the earth. I was particularly impressed that all of the SPP programs I saw were designed to help their participants gain self-esteem and redemption by creating a way for them to give back to society. The passion and pride expressed by the program participants that I met was not only inspiring, but infectious.

Learn more about Atsuko and the programs at Shimane Asahi Rehabilitation Program Center.

Students stop at the garden after attending a Seeds to Supper class at Stafford Creek Corrections Center.

Sagebrush in Prisons

The sage-grouse in the project’s new logo was drawn by a sagebrush program technician, Lawrence Jenkins.

By Stacy Moore, Institute for Applied Ecology Program Director, Ecological Education, and Joslyn Rose Trivett, SPP Education and Outreach Manager

“For the first time in my life I’m actually doing something right and I’m making a difference. Most importantly, I believe in what we do more than anything else in my life.” ~ Lawrence Jenkins at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington

“Yes, I’ve made mistakes, we all have, but the one I don’t want to make is missing the chance to give back to the world that has taken care of me. Given the chance, you will see the goodness in us all.” ~ Toby Jones at Warner Creek Correctional Facility in Lakeview, Oregon (longer quote here)

The Sagebrush in Prisons Project is a multi-state restoration program including corrections center nurseries located in six western states: Oregon, Idaho, Washington, Nevada, Utah, and Montana. The effort is led by the Institute for Applied Ecology (IAE), a founding partner of SPP-Oregon, with funding from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The planting crew from Snake River Correctional Institution take a moment to pose with their sagebrush plugs. Photo by Institute for Applied Ecology (IAE) staff.

The programs grow sagebrush for restoration of greater sage-grouse habitat and to provide restoration ecology education and training to incarcerated men and women. Inmate crews, staff, and educators assist BLM in planting sagebrush each fall/early winter. We estimate that these programs will plant 445,000 sagebrush plants this fall!

These women work with and learn about sagebrush in the program at Montana Women’s Prison (MWP). Photo by IAE staff.

Captain McCorkhill at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility helps loads plugs ready for fall planting. Photo by IAE staff.

The Sagebrush in Prisons Project completes the full circle of a native plant’s life: from seed collection to sowing, daily care, and then planting mature plants in the fall. The program is a win-win-win for the inmates, community and the environment. Inmates giving back to the community gain a new perspective on how we treat our natural heritage and each other. The community and local habitats benefit through healthier ecosystems and more wildlife.

The program generates balance within our environment and within the everyday lives of incarcerated individuals. It gives them some access to work valued by communities inside and outside the fence, and also may be a source of meaning and pride.

It gratifying to hear what incarcerated technicians think of the program, and what it has meant in their lives. Here are more quotes from the project, these from  Idaho State Correctional Center’s program, said by crew members as they boxed up sagebrush plugs for planting last October:

“In 19 years this is the first time I’ve been able to give back to the community.”

“It is a sanctuary out here. This is a huge blessing.” 

“This brings inmates together when we can work on a project like this. It breaks the walls down where it doesn’t feel like prison so much.”

We are impressed to see a complex conservation program replicated and maintaining integrity in a variety of corrections systems—speaks to the strength of the model! We know that the program would not be possible without the efforts of inmates, corrections staff, educators, contractors, and partners. Thank you to all of you who make Sagebrush in Prisons Project possible and successful. It’s a dream come true.

Butterfly conservation takes flight in Oregon prison

Text by Ronda Naseth, Oregon Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly Program Coordinator, Oregon Zoo
Photos by Tom Kaye, Institute for Applied Ecology, and Chad Naugle, Oregon Department of Corrections

The technicians pose with their larvae, growing in cups under energy-efficient LED bulbs. From left to right: Marisol, Carolyn, Mary, Sarah.

Sarah shows how larvae have begun webbing in preparation for diapause.

The excitement generated by the new Butterfly Conservation Lab at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility is both palpable and contagious to anyone who visits. The buzz began this spring. Oregon Zoo staff began training program technicians to receive egg clusters and to raise larvae. At the same time, staff and inmates – skilled in trades from plumbing to quilting – worked to transform an empty room into a fully functioning, bright, and beautiful lab. The work being done here is groundbreaking: it expands recovery efforts for the endangered Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly from Washington to Oregon, and brings butterfly conservation work into a medium facility housing unit for the first time.

The technicians’ dedication to the work is reflected in successes so far this season. Their attentiveness allowed them to capture video of the first larvae hatching from their eggs. They enthusiastically welcomed 150 “ninjas” that were overlooked as egg clusters but suddenly appeared as larvae on our host plants. Recently, they accepted the responsibility for care of a single Oregon Zoo butterfly which elected to skip diapause (a period of dormancy, somewhat similar to hibernation), and head straight into pupation and adulthood several months ahead of schedule.

Ultimately, the technicians’ care has resulted in a 95% survival rate, measuring from the time the larvae were first big enough to count to entering diapause. Our program goals include having 500 larvae survive diapause in order to be released to the field next spring; with 935 healthy larvae currently ready to head into the overwintering stage, we are optimistic we will meet this goal!

Marisol shows a lab visitor how larvae climb to the lids of their cups to bask in the light.

Staff and technicians alike are deservedly proud of their work and of the lab itself. They actively seek opportunities to share their space and their new knowledge. They host tours, speak about the program at Toastmasters gatherings, and participate in special activities such as CCCF’s annual Through A Child’s Eyes event and a recent science lecture and media visit. Technicians share larval development with other women on their unit by displaying photos and information on the lab windows. In the technicians’ words:

“When I go to our butterfly lab, I feel a sense of peace in a world of chaos. I have a rare opportunity to sustain the life of an endangered species, which gives me a unique reward of being able to give peace back into the world.”

Sarah

“This program gives me an opportunity to give back to the Earth and not take things for granted.”

Marisol

“The Butterfly Program has been very beneficial to me as I know I’m doing something good for the environment. I also love the opportunity to work with a wonderful team!

Mary

“To be involved in this program means I am given the opportunity to be involved in my community here at Coffee Creek as well as an extension to the outside community through our partnership with the Oregon Zoo, ultimately helping to change Oregon’s environment one butterfly at a time.”

Carolyn

The butterfly crew stands under a quilt created for the lab by Oregon Corrections Enterprises quilters. From left to right: Marisol, Ronda, Mary, Sarah, Carolyn.

Nature Imagery in Prisons Project

By Nalini Nadkarni, SPP Co-Founder, John Wasiutynski, Director of the Office of Sustainability for Multnomah County, and Joslyn Rose Trivett, SPP Education and Outreach Manager

The human race has been intimately connected with and dependent upon nature throughout its history. Our species gains numerous physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental health benefits through contact with the natural world; this has been strongly demonstrated by research in a variety of settings (see library curated by the Children’s Nature Network, and another compiled by a member of the faculty at University of Washington’s College of the Environment).

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni querying inmate on which of a variety of nature images are most appealing prior to showing videos in solitary confinement cellblocks, Washington Corrections Center, Shelton, Washington. Photo by Benj Drummond.

For some people, contact with nature and the outdoors is difficult or impossible. People incarcerated in “segregation”, maximum security areas, do not have access to the “yard” or any outdoor areas inside or outside prison fences. In these cases, vicarious nature video experiences may be the only possible contact with nonhuman nature. Nature videos cannot provide full relief from of the many emotional, cognitive, and physical stresses associated with segregation, but they can reduce stress, aggression, and other negative emotions. Plus, providing nature imagery to inmates imposes little additional burden on corrections staff.

Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office improved Inverness Jail’s Treatment Readiness Dorm with nature imagery. It’s a small change that creates a noticeable shift in the character of the room. Inmates’ response to this pilot was unanimously positive; following this success, staff have added nature imagery to nearly all the dorms in the two jails. Photo by Alene Davis.

Championed and supported by an inspired team, Nature Imagery in Prisons Project (NIPP) is gaining traction as a new standard for segregated housing and other areas of prisons. The NIPP team first conducted a study at Snake River Correctional Institution in Oregon, which resulted in definitive findings. Interviews of staff members revealed that although many were initially skeptical about offering nature imagery to inmates, by the end of the year-long study the majority of staff recognized the offering as potentially valuable. Staff respondents agreed that the inmates became calmer after viewing the videos, and that these effects lasted for hours, with less violent behaviors and fewer angry outbursts by inmates.

Incarcerated individuals in the program reported feeling significantly calmer, less irritable, and more empathetic. Analyses of prison records revealed that those inmates who watched nature videos committed 26% fewer violent infractions compared to those without videos. More detailed program results are available in the January 2017 issue of Corrections Today and a research brief from Oregon Youth Authority.

Nature Imagery in Prisons Project has gained high-level media attention from Time magazine, MSNBC, and the Oregonian, and will be the cover story for Frontiers of Ecology and the Environment in September. As of August, 2017, there are active and in-development programs in Alaska, Nebraska, Florida, Oregon, Wisconsin, Utah, and Washington State. Oregon (Multnomah County and state corrections) and Washington State have extended the concept beyond segregation, offering nature imagery in computer labs, staff areas, day rooms, and mental health/therapeutic-focused living units.

Results from the Snake River program and staff and inmate testimonials suggest that exposure to nature imagery can be helpful. It is a low-cost, low impact intervention that is helpful in reducing disciplinary referrals, violent behavior, physiological states, and connections and reconnections to nature. More research is needed to understand specific elements of the program, and inform application nationwide.

Acknowledgments: The research team for this project includes Tierney Thys, Patricia Hasbach, Emily Gaines, and Lance Schnacker. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation, the University of Utah, and an anonymous donor.

This Nature Imagery room at Washington Corrections Center is accessible to 150 men with severe cognitive challenges, and can be a place for self-calming.  One of the residents said, “My mind is eased. I like to be there all the time.” SPP’s Evergreen and WA Corrections staff discuss modifications that will improve the program space. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

 

 

 

Bees at MCCCW – Photo Gallery

Photos and text by Emily Passarelli, SPP Green Track Coordinator

A special congratulations to Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women! This past Wednesday, they received two live hives donated with help from West Sound Beekeepers Association instructor, George Purkett. George is currently teaching 5 incarcerated individuals how to become beekeepers. I was present to see the first time the new beekeepers inspected the hives. They PET HONEYBEES (yeah, actually pet bees with a bare hand!), checked for mites (thankfully, no mites), and labeled the queens with a special marker. The photo gallery tells more of the story!

West Plains Beekeeper George Purkett uses the smokers to calm the bees before opening the hive.

 

Beekeeper George Purkett quizzes the incarcerated beekeepers on the health of the bees (the bees are doing great!).

 

Honeybee drones don’t have stingers, so they’re safe to hold without gloves! Photo by Emily Passarelli.

 

Honeybees are so docile you can pet them! They were warm and fuzzy.

 

After finding the queen, Mr. Purkett marked the queen with a special marker. She had to stay in the queen bee holder until the ink marking dried.

 

After the queen was released, the other bees surrounded her. Can you see her?

 

Varroa mites are one of the major honeybee killers. To test for them, George took about 200 bees and shook them with sugar. (Later, the bees enjoy cleaning and eating the sugar off their bodies!) The sugar pops the mites off. Thankfully, this hive is clean from mites!

 

Congrats to the newly certified staff and incarcerated beekeepers!