Category Archives: Prison Life

Art of the Oregon silverspot butterfly

By SPP SCCC Conservation Nursery Coordinator Graham Klag

Fall colors continue to take flight at Stafford Creek Corrections Center through the artistic talents of conservation technician Michael! Inspired by SPP lectures and nursery work, Michael’s artistic illustrations of the Oregon silverspot butterfly (Speryeria zerene hippolyta) captures the beauty of prairie conservation work. The Early blue violet (Viola adunca) is grown at SPP Prairie Conservation Nurseries for the Oregon silverspot butterfly.

The Early blue violet is the sole host plant for the caterpillar of the butterfly who needs to eat ~ 250 violet leaves to complete its life cycle. Michael and the conservation technician crew at Stafford Creek continuing to grow their knowledge of Washington and Oregon’s prairie ecosystems, while out growing the Early blue violet, for the habitat and lifecycle of Oregon silverspot butterfly. SPP is thankful for our conservation technicians’ work and artistic inspiration!

Susan Christopher reflects on her experience raising endangered butterflies in prison

Text by Susan Christopher, photos by Keegan Curry

Hello! My name is Susan Christopher and I’m currently incarcerated at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women in Belfair, Washington. I would like to thank the Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) for blessing me with the incredible opportunity of being involved with the Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly Program for more than three years.

Susan helps technician Cynthia Fetterly examine a newly emerged butterfly.

The goal of the program is to successfully breed and rear the federally-endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly in captivity and release 3000-5000 larvae into their native and restored habitats each year. This is a collaboration of many partners including The Evergreen State College, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Zoo, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Department of Defense, among others.

During the four breeding seasons I worked in the program, I was able to witness every life stage up close and personal. I watched a butterfly lay her eggs on a leaf. A few weeks later, through a microscope, I watched those eggs hatch. While feeding those caterpillars every day, I saw many of them shed their outer skin—a process called molting—several times as they matured. I watched them reach the diapause stage, in which they slept for several months. Upon waking up in the spring, I would feed them again until the true miracle began: as they shed their last exoskeleton, I could see the chrysalis form until they became a pupa. Roughly three weeks later, I witnessed the final stage of the miracle of transformation when the butterfly emerges, unfurls its wings, and takes its first flight. It was simply amazing.

Susan offers her knowledge of Taylor’s checkerspot husbandry to producers from PBS Nature.

A biologist from WDFW helps Susan understand the composition of prairie vegetation in a healthy Taylor’s checkerspot habitat.

I’ve often wondered how many people in this world have had the opportunity to observe each of those events. Only a handful, I would guess. But that is just part of what I got from this program.

I was interviewed by PBS twice and appeared on a PBS NewsHour segment. I was allowed to attend a Working Group Conference and gave a presentation about our program to approximately 40 managers and biologists who also work with Taylor’s checkerspot. I have also been interviewed by an author from Japan and a group of prison administrators from Thailand. This last spring, myself and the other butterfly technicians got to go on a field trip to see our “finished product”—wild checkerspots—in their restored habitat.

This was more than just a job; this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that has provided me with professional skills and many lifelong memories.

I would never have believed I would be given such a chance in prison, but thanks to the people at SPP, WDFW, and the Oregon Zoo—all who took a risk by bringing this program to incarcerated individuals—I can truly say this has changed my life. Thank you to all those who had the foresight to believe in us.

 

Susan Christopher and the 2017 butterfly crew—Jessica Stevens, Alexis Coleman, Nichole Alexander, and Cynthia Fetterly—pose for a photo after hosting Girl Scouts Beyond Bars in the greenhouse at MCCCW.

More Beekeeping than Ever!

Text by Bethany Shepler,  SPP Green Track Program Coordinator, and Joslyn Rose Trivett, SPP Education and Outreach Manager.
Photos by Bethany Shepler, except where otherwise noted.

About a year and a half ago, SPP partners hosted a beekeeping summit at Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW). Nearly every facility was represented and we were joined by Washington State Beekeepers Association (WASBA) leadership, local beekeeping clubs, and state agency pollinator enthusiasts and experts.

Group photo from the Beekeeping Summit in Spring 2017. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

The summit was well timed to meet growing interest in bringing beekeeping to prisons around the state. A few WA prisons have hosted beekeeping for years and SPP partners were hearing inquiries from many others interested in starting new programs. SPP Co-Director Steve Sinclair suggested a summit, and that was the catalyst we needed; it brought everyone together to learn from each other, expand practical knowledge, and build enthusiasm.

The effects of the summit are still being felt around the state. A year and a half later, WA Corrections is part of 13 active beekeeping programs, and all 10 of the new programs are doing well. Some facilities are conducting scientific trials and learning about honeybee forensics. This fall, Washington State Penetintiary (WSP) and Airway Heights Corrections Center (AHCC) participated in a USDA national survey on bee health.

Each program is worthy of its own article. Here, we will share just one or two highlights from each. Check out all of the incredible accomplishments of beekeepers in prisons:

Airway Heights Corrections Center (AHCC)

AHCC has one of the fastest growing beekeeping programs in Washington prisons, and the first to create their own bee club. Working with West Plains Beekeepers Association, incarcerated beekeepers created the first draft of a new, state-wide Journeyman course manual, pictured above—a stunning accomplishment. Currently, Washington State Beekeepers Association is refining AHCC’s draft for publication, for both prison and non-prison programs! We are ecstatic to see the support and excitement AHCC has shown for their beekeeping program and look forward to their continued success! 

Clallam Bay Corrections Center (CBCC)

Clallam Bay hosted its second beekeeping intensive this spring. Students had already completed the Beginner Beekeeping modules, and prepared further by reading books and scientific articles. Mark Urnes of North Olympic Peninsula Beekeepers spent a full day with students; he answered questions and work-shopped on beekeeping best practices. 

Cedar Creek Corrections Center (CCCC)

Cedar Creek is one of the oldest beekeeping programs in the state and has certified more than 60 beekeepers so far. The wood shop at the facility built the hives for the McNeil Island beekeeping program. The picture here is of wood shop crew and Centralia College instructor Bruce Carley tasting honey at a beekeeping workshop; expert beekeeper Laurie Pyne covered beekeeping basics and the differences in honey types from different pollen sources. CCCC’s beekeeping program is in partnership with Olympia Beekeepers Association.

Coyote Ridge Corrections Center (CRCC)

Coyote Ridge supports a beekeeping program that has been going strong since its inception 2 years ago. To support the bees, staff members and inmates planted more pollinator friendly plants around the facility. To protect the hives from central Washington’s cold winter weather, they “winter-ize” the boxes, shown above: they wrapped the hive in insulation and put cedar chips or burlap inside the hive to draw up moisture. CRCC beekeeping program is in partnership with Mid-Columbia Beekeepers Association.

Larch Corrections Center (LCC)

Larch has four hives and a nuc (that’s the small box on the left) at their facility. This picture was taken last week, just after the bees had been fed and they were all buzzing around busily! Their hives are really strong right now so we’re hopeful that they’ll do well over the Winter. LCC beekeeping program is in partnership with Clark County Beekeepers Association.

McNeil Island Beekeeping Program (McNeil Island and CCCC)

This project is so exciting and unusual! The McNeil Island beekeeping project has been a dream for more than 4 years and the Summit helped launch it into realty. Ownership and management of McNeil Island is complex, so the program needed input and support from many partners: staff and administration from Cedar Creek Corrections Center (CCCC)Washington Department of Fish and WildlifeWashington Department of Natural Resources, and CI staff (thank you Brian Peterson, Vania Beard, and Henry Mack!). Enthusiastic endorsements from Secretary Steve Sinclair and then Deputy Secretary Jody Becker Green helped, too!  🙂 

This past May, the first hives of bees arrived at the island. Throughout the spring, summer, and fall, a team of local beekeeping experts visited the hives frequently. On many visits, they support incarcerated beekeepers’ gaining hands-on experience (pictured above). The program’s beekeepers seek to understand the impact that pesticides have on bees–McNeil Island is a rare, pesticide-free environment. The expert beekeeping team includes Laurie Pyne, Maren Anderson, Gail Booth, Andy Matelich, and Dixon Fellows. Photo by Laurie Pyne.

Monroe Correctional Complex-Special Offenders Unit (MCC-SOU)

MCC-SOU has shown incredible amounts of enthusiasm for beekeeping! They launched their program just this spring, and it’s been so exciting to see the students, staff, and local beekeeping expert dive into the program. This is the only facility in the state using Top Bar Hives. The picture above shows the bulletin board in the facility advertising the beekeeping program, courtesy of Kathy Grey.

MCC-SOU beekeeping program is in partnership with Northwest District Beekeepers Association.

Monroe Correctional Complex – Twin Rivers Unit (MCC-TRU)

Inmates and staff at MCC-TRU have shown tons of energy for beekeeping! Even though bees were only delivered in April, they’ve already completed one Apprentice level certification course. Their hives have been so successful that they were able to split hives and collected honey! They also had a hive on display at the Evergreen State Fair, and they exhibited many photos of their beekeepers in action. The photo shows a staff beekeeper showing a frame covered in bees to onlookers at the fair. Photo by SPP staff. 

MCC-TRU beekeeping program is in partnership with Northwest District Beekeepers Association.

Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW)

MCCCW may be small, but they are a mighty program. Over the last year, they faced some challenges with finding pollinating plants and relocating their hives. But that didn’t stop them or even slow the program–they graduated 3 times as many incarcerated students in their most recent class as their previous class. They also have strong, healthy hives going into winter! MCCCW beekeeping program is in partnership with West Sound Beekeepers Association

Stafford Creek Corrections Center (SCCC)

SCCC has had hives for many years. Next to the hives is a beekeeping interpretive sign–picture above–and in the summer of 2018 a few queen bees found that sign to be an ideal place to emerge into the world! Photo by Kelly Peterson. 

SCCC’s bee program added a beekeeping class this year with it’s first class graduating in January. Since then, they have completed 4 classes, and the wait list of students keeps growing. Their classes regularly include both incarcerated and corrections staff students. SCCC beekeeping program is in partnership with local expert beekeeper Duane McBride.

Washington Corrections Center (WCC)

WCC hosts an ever-growing beekeeping program! They started out on the right foot, building a high quality shelter for their hives. The bees are housed next to the Prairie Conservation Nursery Program, and this means there can be a lot of cross pollination between the two SPP-supported programs. WCC’s beekeeping program is in partnership with Olympia Beekeepers Association. Photo by Ricky Osborne. 

Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW)

A crew from WCCW has been keeping bees at Mother Earth Farm for many years. Tacoma Community College students at the prison have long learned about beekeeping and pollinators as part of the horticulture program. In 2016, the two programs joined forces and brought hives inside the prison fence. Now you can see honeybees throughout WCCW’s gardens, happily tending to the many flowers. Photo by Joslyn Rose Trivett.

WCCW beekeeping program is in partnership with Mother Earth Farms.

Washington State Penitentiary (WSP)

WSP hosts an enduring and impressive beekeeping program! Two WSP staff members are experienced beekeepers, and they serve both as instructors and program sponsors. This year they had 15 hives and participated in the USDA National Honey Bee Pest Survey! In this photo, beekeeping students learn from expert beekeeper Mona Chambers. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

WSP’s beekeeping program is in partnership with West Plains Beekeepers Association.

These programs are born out of collaboration and enthusiasm of many partners. We are so excited to see these efforts will continue to grow!

Out on the Farm

Text by former Cedar Creek Turtle Technician William “Bill” Anglemyer.
Forward by former SPP Turtle Program Coordinator, Jessica Brown.
Photos by SPP Conservation Coordinator, Marisa Pushee (unless otherwise noted).

I met Bill during my first visit to Cedar Creek over a year ago when I started as SPP’s Turtle Program Coordinator.  Although Bill is quite humble in sharing his experience as a technician, he played a huge role in the success of the western pond turtle program: his organization, attention to detail, and dedication to the turtles’ health and welfare were instrumental to building the program. It was fun to witness his passion for reading and writing about environmental issues leading him to the Organic Farming Program at Evergreen. Recently, Marisa Pushee and I had the chance to visit Bill on the organic farm and get a tour of all the gardens and operations, including Bill’s carrots! Below are Bill’s own words about his time with SPP, and what he’s been up to since his time as a Turtle Technician.

Bill shows a harvest of his prized carrots at Evergeen’s Organic Farm. Photo by Tierra Petersen.

My name is William “Bill” Anglemyer. I spent over 3 years working as a Turtle Technician at Cedar Creek Correctional Center through SPP, in collaboration with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. In those 3+ years, I did much more than care for turtles. I also raised Oregon spotted frogs for the summer of the first year and maintained cricket and mealworm breeding operations. Additionally, I was involved in the video monitoring of four different species of woodpeckers for a research program conducted by the US Forest Service.

In the western pond turtle program, I learned about the importance of biodiversity and the role of different species within our world. At first, most of this learning was done to counter arguments by staff and other inmates who failed to see the value in preserving endangered species. I spent my time studying textbooks on conservation biology and animal behavior (ethology). After a few years studying those subjects and countering arguments from different people, I began to really understand the importance and the dangers that go along with the current climate situation.

Along with my passion for environmentalism, I have always been interested in journalism. This is because I believe journalism is the only field in which a person’s job is to learn all they can about everything in the world.

Beautiful flowers growing at the Organic Farm on Evergreen’s campus.

I am currently enrolled in The Evergreen State College where I’m studying organic farming and the local food movement. My plan is to be a voice for small farmers in future journalistic pursuits. In one year I will complete my bachelor’s degree. My plan is to produce pieces on environmental, socio-economic, and social justice issues without the sensationalization that is part and parcel of many mainstream media productions. As to current projects, a classmate and I are working on a coffee table book of photography with pictures of recreational vehicles which feature a comical prefix added to their names.

After I complete my degree at Evergreen, I hope to attend the environmental journalism school at CU Boulder — more schooling never hurts when it comes to learning skills and making contacts.

Bill hard at work on the Organic Farm at Evergreen.

Caring about people, caring about place

by Joslyn Trivett, SPP Education and Outreach Manager

Airway Heights Corrections Center (AHCC) is a fair trip from the Evergreen team’s offices in Olympia—a six hour drive, or a flight to Spokane and renting a car. Even so, each of us who has been before looks for excuses to go again. AHCC positivity and enthusiasm are infectious, and it is great fun to join them whenever we can.

A likely source of the positivity is the staff culture; it is easy to feel the influence of AHCC leadership and staff wellness and productivity throughout the facility. They take on new projects expecting to succeed, and work hard. At the same time, they don’t take themselves too seriously. They laugh a lot! They talk openly about their own faults, and poke friendly fun at others.

AHCC staff make fun during a sustainability meeting. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

AHCC’s waste sorting program is so effective that the incarcerated porter didn’t understand what the corrections staff meant when asking about “garbage.” That word starting to lose its meaning was so delightful that we all started to laugh.

Before a nature illustration class, Associate Heinrich talks with an incarcerated student. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Just as important, they also listen intently to others’ ideas and questions. They believe in each other, and do a grand job of celebrating everyone’s successes. The work environment is pervaded by a can-do attitude. As Kraig Witt, Recreation Specialist 4, has said, “This is our giant coloring book. Let’s play…there’s no can’t. We can do anything.

Their optimism finds many willing partners. AHCC hosts extraordinarily productive sustainability programs. To name a few: a thriving in-prison beekeeping club; Pawsitive dog training supported by two humane societies; more than 500 cords of firewood processed for donation to low income families each year; new quilting and vermicomposting programs. Most of the prison grounds are devoted to gardens, and when regional water contamination meant they needed to suspend growing vegetables, they planted flowers instead; they know how to make lemonade from lemons!

Correctional Program Manager Mike Klemke describes the Computers 4 Kids program. In the last year, incarcerated technicians refurbished 4,321 computers.

At the heart of these efforts is investing in AHCC staff. Associate Superintendent Kay Heinrich has said, “It really engages the staff to care about the environment of where they work. People care about where they’re working; it increases their morale.” A previously incarcerated SPP technician and current Evergreen student advised us that taking care of staff makes the prison experience better for everyone. We look to follow AHCC’s example on what that can look like.

AHCC dedicates a huge area to cutting and stacking cords of firewood for Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners (SNAP). Photo by Bethany Shepler.

 

Beans to Bluebonnets

Text by Bethany Shepler, SPP Green Track Coordinator
All photos by SPP-Evergreen staff

This May I visited Airway Heights Corrections Center (AHCC). It was about a year after the town discovered their drinking water was contaminated by runoff from the nearby Fairchild Air Force Base.

The town of Airway Heights was greatly impacted by the contamination, and the local prison was no exception. AHCC has a large agriculture and gardening program that was forced to throw out about 100,000 pounds of fresh vegetables grown on site because of contamination concerns.

A view of a field inside at AHCC where inmates grow produce. This picture was taken in early spring of 2016.

This is the same AHCC field when I visited in late May. No produce was growing, and none would be for the remainder of 2018.

A year later, things have mostly righted themselves in Airway Heights. Prison administrators told me that soil tests have shown their soil has low amounts of contaminants in it, if any. Even so, they wanted to be sure the soil was completely clear before planting produce again. For 2018, many of the vegetable gardens were growing flowers only. Flowers can “clean” the soil by pulling the contaminants out of it.

The courtyard at AHCC full of produce in Spring of 2016.

This Spring, showy flowers are found throughout the courtyard and gardens, in most places where you could find vegetables in recent years.

The inmates and staff are confident they will be growing produce again next year. Until then the flowers look beautiful, and the pollinators love them!

A honeybee collects pollen from bluebonnets growing in the prison courtyard.

Astrobiology for the Incarcerated – Ohio

by Joslyn Rose Trivett, SPP Education and Outreach Manager
Note: See an earlier article for an introduction to the Astrobiology for the Incarcerated program

At Grafton Reintegration Center, the presentation was filmed for broadcast on a multi-institution channel.

In late April, the Astrobiology for the Incarcerated program visited five prisons plus a youth facility in Ohio. In four densely-packed days, we reached 440 incarcerated participants, 55 staff and teacher participant—it was a satisfying whirl-wind of activity and ideas. Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction‘s Energy Conservation & Sustainability Administrator Jacqueline Langhals gave excellent administrative support for the program, and Corrections staff and incarcerated students were gracious and enthusiastic hosts. Whereas Dr Drew Gorman-Lewis presented on astrobiology research in the Washington State series, in Ohio it was Dr Jackie Goordial who covered research; she is a microbiologist currently at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.

Science vs Religion?

Dr Jackie Goordial presents in the chapel at London Corrections Institution.

In Ohio, nearly every event was held in the prison chapel, which—for many—elicited a perceived conflict between science and spirituality. Luckily, Daniella Scalice is a master of taking a hard question and suggesting how to transform it into a beautiful idea. She offered that we think about astrobiology’s origin stories as complementary, even reinforcing, the origin stories of many religions. She pointed to the root meaning of the word Universe:

uni meaning one

verse meaning story 

Thinking about it this way, astrobiology gives us one of many powerful and meaningful origin stories.

The Pale Blue Dot

At Grafton Corrections Institution, Daniella Scalice reads Carl Sagan’s response to an image of Earth from 4 billion miles away.

At every presentation, Daniella read a moving quote by Carl Sagan in which he describes a photograph of Earth taken by Voyager 1 from about 4 billion miles away; the earth appears as a pale blue dot—barely visible at that distance:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. ~ Carl Sagan, 1994

Impromptu Seminars

At every facility, the incarcerated students brought excellent observations and queries. As Jackie described her research on microbes in an Antarctic desert and the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, she was peppered with keen questions. Sometimes, the questions were so insightful that Jackie would pause before responding to say, “That’s amazing.” Then she would explain how the question exposed the very heart of the topic, bringing up questions that she and her colleagues had investigated for months, or would be central to her future work as a scientist.

Students at Franklin Medical Center, just south of Columbus, asked highly scientific questions of Dr Jackie Goordial, to her delight.

Many students engaged in informal seminars following the presentation; this one is at Noble Corrections Institution.

Following every presentation, many students would gather for informal seminar on astrobiology topics. Jackie and Daniella fielded their questions and input with grace and humor, listening carefully and validating the many astute observations. They discussed pathways for studying astrobiology and other scientific disciplines, how a person can become a scientist, and who pays for scientific research and outreach.

At Cuyahoga Hills Youth Facility, Daniella Scalice supported teams of students and teachers designing and budgeting a mission to search for life elsewhere in our Solar System. Photo by Doc Brown.

What next?

Next on the schedule is Florida Department of Corrections, where seven facilities will host the program in September. At the same time, the team will offer return visits and multimedia materials for prison libraries. Noble Corrections Institution plans to do even more, creating a multi-speaker series that’s a proper “program” yielding a certificate; speakers would present via video, and those sessions would tie to the multimedia library with post-lecture “homework” assignments. Sounds like an ideal iteration of the program!

Abundant thanks to all the staff, leadership, and incarcerated students in Ohio. It would be wonderful to bring the program back again in the future!

The crowd at Noble Corrections Institution takes in Daniella’s presentation.

Jackie is charmed by Miss Josie at Grafton Reintegration Center. The tie to astrobiology? Well, even the atoms of adorable Miss Josie were built in the heart of a star.;-)

 

 

Beekeeping at Clallam Bay

Text and photos by Bethany Shepler, SPP Green Track Coordinator

Students observe a frame from the hive Mark brought in. This frame has wax on it and some cells were full of pollen.

Beekeeping has been growing in popularity throughout prisons in Washington State, with 12 facilities now housing hives! Clallam Bay Corrections Center (CBCC) is among them; the prison has 3 healthy hives tended by inmate and staff apprentice beekeepers certified by WA State Beekeepers Association. CBCC is located in Clallam Bay on the Olympic Peninsula adjacent to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Beekeeping instructor Mark Urnes shows students a bottom board from the hive he brought in as a demonstration tool.

The liaison holds a drawing of bee drone biology made by incarcerated students.

Earlier in the spring, CBCC hosted a day-long intensive seminar for a new group of incarcerated beekeepers. Beekeeping instructor Mark Urnes, the education lead for the North Olympic Peninsula Beekeepers’ Association, led the seminar and fielded many questions from the inmate beekeepers.They covered topics such as bee biology, pathogens, and colony collapse disorder. Students came prepared, so that they could get as much out of the intensive as possible; all had read scientific articles, bee journals, and reviewed their class notes from WA State Beekeepers Association apprenticeship curriculum. They brought with them drawings of bee biology and model hives that aided Mark’s descriptions and demonstrations.

The CBCC officer who sponsors the beekeeping program told me many stories about how beekeeping has had positive impacts on the lives of inmates and staff. The staff sponsor was proud to share that inmates who go through the program have a lasting positive effects from it. I was so happy to hear that the program is being so well received and having such a positive effect on the lives of those involved in it.

More images from the intensive follow.

Another sketch by incarcerated students shows a cross section of a hive showing the different stages of bee larvae within the hive cells.

This frame shows wax that is fresher, towards the side of the frame, compared to older wax in the middle of the frame.

Students listen as Mark answers questions.

Students had constructed a model hive out of paper (seen on the table) and Mark used it to aid the part of his presentation about the different parts of a hive and the purpose they serve.

Mark holds a picture of queen next to some worker bees. Here he was talking about the importance of queen health to the hive as a whole.

Mark listens as a student asks a question.

Keep up the good work, CBCC!

 

Astrobiology for the Incarcerated – Washington

by Joslyn Rose Trivett, SPP Education and Outreach Manager

In April, I was fortunate to spend days and days immersed in the topic of astrobiology. What is astrobiology? It is the study of how stars and planets form, how that relates to life here on Earth, and the search for life elsewhere in the Universe. Alongside hundreds of incarcerated students and dozens of corrections staff in both Washington and Ohio, I got to learn about what is known, what is still unknown, and ponder immense questions. I had stars in my eyes, for sure!

Daniella Scalice, Education and Communications Lead for NASA’s Astrobiology Program, describes element creation in the core of a star to students at Mission Creek Corrections Center. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Dr Drew Gorman-Lewis, Associate Professor in the Earth and Space Sciences at University of Washington, responds to a question from a student at Airway Heights Corrections Center. Photo by Kelli Bush.

Washington State’s lecture series started at Mission Creek Corrections Center where they packed the gym; 150 students’ attention and curiosity gave us a great sense of success. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Astrobiology for the Incarcerated is a new program, funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s Astrobiology Program, and in partnership with Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) and Utah’s Initiative to bring Science Programs to the Incarcerated (INSPIRE). The program was brought to us by Daniella Scalice, Education and Communications Lead for NASA’s Astrobiology Program; she is a master of describing exquisite concepts and making them relevant to our lives.

Here I will share details from the Washington State programs; I will share Ohio’s in part 2. In Washington, Daniella was joined by Dr Drew Gorman-Lewis, Associate Professor in the Earth and Space Sciences at University of Washington. Our small team visited five prisons in four days, reaching 450 incarcerated students and 52 corrections staff. At each venue, Drew and Daniella told us a three-part story.

Part One: Creation

Daniella introduced us to the life cycle of stars—who knew that stars had life cycles!—and how their birth, maturity, and death creates and distributes most of the elements that makes up the Universe as we know it. She told us: Every atom in our bodies, the water we drink, the food we eat, our buildings, our roads, the things we buy and make, all were built in the heart of a star. It’s a dizzying concept, one that connects everyone and everything.

She outlined how these elements may have come together in the nutrient and energy rich environments of hydrothermal vents—hot water vents at the ocean floor—to create the first microbes, the first life on Earth.

Part Two: Adaptation

Part two came from Drew. He told us about his research with microbes, single-celled organisms, that live in extreme environments on earth. His personal and professional favorites live in near-boiling pools of acid—really! He emphasized that there are microbes living and thriving in nearly every environment on Earth. Those inhabitants also influence their environments; their life processes take up, transform, and leave behind new elements and structures. The microbes can quickly adapt to take advantage of new conditions, and so back and forth, life and the Earth interact and influence each other. His research investigates how much energy microbes use to live in extreme environments, and in this way sheds a bit of light on where and how we might find microbes beyond our Earth.

Students respond to a question from Daniella. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Part Three: Exploration

Daniella’s part three dove into this search for life, focusing on the most promising worlds within our solar system. I was amazed to learn that there are some excellent contenders! I was particularly taken by moons of Jupiter and Saturn, Europa  and Enceladus, that have global oceans: hidden beneath icy crusts, their worlds are covered with liquid water. On Enceladus, there is also evidence of geothermal vents. Given that one of the theories for the origin of life places it in Earth vents, this news of similar environments on a moon of Saturn gave me the chills (the good kind).

At every venue, the students dazzled us with ideas and questions. I think that’s the best part for me—hearing how others are making sense of the concepts, the collective insights and exploration. I learned as much from them as from the scientists…as usual!

Our second stop was Cedar Creek Corrections Center. Students and staff had to walk through the rain to attend, and still brought their best selves. Photo by Joslyn Rose Trivett.

To the class at Twin Rivers Unit, Monroe Correctional Complex, Daniella emphasized that astrobiology is not possible without collaboration, and she invited the students present to bring their diversity of knowledge and insight to the topic. Photo by Joslyn Rose Trivett.

Students had trouble signing up for the session at Washington State Reformatory, also in Monroe Correctional Complex, and that seemed to mean that only the most avidly interested were present. Their questions and comments were advanced, for sure. Photo by Joslyn Rose Trivett.

Our last stop in Washington was at Airway Heights Corrections Center. Photo by Kelli Bush.

 

All attendees left with a gorgeous, ten page summary of the presentation. Photo by Kelli Bush.