Category Archives: Science

The Early Bird Gets the Worm

Posted by undergraduate research assistant Sarelle Caicedo

It’s 6 AM, and while most people are still sleeping at this point, this is the prime time of the day for bird enthusiasts. As an undergraduate senior, who truly enjoys the luxury of a good ‘sleeping in’ I (undergraduate research assistant, Sarelle Caicedo) recently gave up that luxury for a day to meet with vital Sustainable Prisons Project partners Jim Lynch, a Fish and Wildlife Biologist for the Fort Lewis Wildlife Program, and Gary Slater, research director of the Ecostudies Institute.

This meeting was a significant milestone of work to-date with the bird box project.  The goal of the morning was to load Gary’s pick up truck with as many Western Bluebird boxes as possible so he could take the ferry up north to the San Juan Islands and deliver each one to environmentally concerned land owners who requested boxes, as well as the San Juan Preservation Trust.

Because of the stunningly large amount of donated lumber and the willingness of the inmates and staff at Stafford Creek, there was an excess number of Western Bluebird boxes produced! This outcome came as a surprise to all involved, and are SO pleased to have the extra boxes to distribute to individuals eager to support bird conservation.

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Gary Slater showed up with his pickup truck, and on the passenger seat was a small cage with a blanket on it. Inside the cage was a male and female western bluebird, which he was going to take to the San Juan Islands to jumpstart the population. As we arrived at a storage unit near the Fort grounds, it was impressive to see the hundreds of built boxes in storage, ready to be delivered.

As we loaded bird boxes, Jim, Gary and I discussed the future of the bird box project, and that next time boxes are delivered, the whole team may travel together, so we can all see the project from its earliest stages of hauling lumber to the prisons, to its final stages of installing boxes on trees and upright structures.  By ten AM the truck was fully loaded, Gary was ready to go, and Jim offered a brief tour of areas of the Fort where restoration projects are taking place.

It feels good to be a part of the early morning club!

Frog Project Receives Grant from Oregon Zoo Foundation

Posted by Graduate Research Associate Liesl Plomski

This April, Cedar Creek Correction Center was awarded a $4,375 grant from the Oregon Zoo Foundation to expand the Oregon spotted frog captive rearing program at the prison. This is the first time the grant has ever been awarded to the Department of Corrections, or to an institution that is not solely dedicated to scientific research.  This will allow the prison to expand from the current capacity of 75 frogs to a future capacity of 300 frogs. Right now the project buys thousands of crickets which are shipped from Alabama – this grant will also help expand the cricket rearing area, which was started with $500 from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Crickets are the main diet of captive reared Oregon spotted frogs after their complete metamorphoses (from larvae to early adult-hood). 

In its first year of the project, Cedar Creek Correction Center reared 67 of 78 larvae to adulthood. They hope to use these funds to increase the number of frogs release back into the wild in the 2011 rearing season.

Bird Conservation Project Taking Flight at Stafford Creek Corrections Center

Blog post by undergraduate research assistant Sarelle Caicedo.

Purple Martins and Western bluebirds are two of the most charismatic birds of the Pacific Northwest. As the newest hands-on project of the Sustainable Prisons Project, inmates at Stafford Creek are constructing bird houses that will serve as habitats for the threatened Purple Martin and Western Bluebirds. The inmates have been enthusiastic about constructing the boxes and learning about the birds they are helping to preserve. To date, 16 Purple Martin boxes have been made and taken to Northwest Trek, where they will be installed and monitored for long-term conservation use. 150 Western Bluebird boxes have already been made and will soon be installed and monitored at various locations. Local lumber retailers (Tumwater Home Depot, Mary’s River Lumber Co., and Windfall Lumber) have donated all of the wood being used to make the boxes, making this project possible.

On April 28th, undergraduate research assistant Sarelle Caicedo and graduate research assistant Carl Elliott will be giving a joint educational lecture at Stafford Creek on Western bluebird and Purple Martin Conservation and Northwest prairie plant ecology. We are hoping that this lecture will increase interest in ornithology and the environment, and that this will kick start a series of future lectures given by undergraduates specializing in ecology and environmental studies at Evergreen.

Women offenders gather for health conference inside prison

Blog post by Graduate Assistant Sarah Clarke:

In September more than 100 offenders, correctional staff and guest scientists participated in the annual health conference at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW). Titled “The Mind, the Spirit, the Environment Maintained Equals a Healthy Body Sustained,” the two-day gathering featured a fitness instructor, inspirational speaker, poet, chaplain and two faculty members from The Evergreen State College. Imagine the scene as we all committed to healthier lives through laughter, tears and even aerobics!

Toxicologist and Evergreen faculty member Dr. Frances Solomon teaches inmates at the Washington Corrections Center for Women during the prison's annual health conference. Photo: Jeff Muse.

Dr. Frances Solomon, a toxicologist and visiting professor at The Evergreen State College, teaches inmates at the Washington Corrections Center for Women during the prison's annual health conference. Photo: Jeff Muse.

Led by Evergreen professor and forest ecologist Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, the second day kicked off with a multimedia presentation on the role of science in our lives, the importance of trees and emerging green-collar jobs. Dr. Nadkarni also announced our hope to initiate a butterfly-rearing project with the prison’s horticultural program and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Next up, toxicologist and watershed specialist Dr. Frances Solomon discussed the impact of toxic chemicals on the environment and human health, including illnesses such as breast cancer. Afterward, offenders were given the microphone to ask questions and express thanks during an insightful and heart-warming feedback session.

Offender feedback through surveys and interviews is essential to the Sustainable Prisons Project. Photo: Jeff Muse.

Offender feedback through surveys and interviews is essential to the Sustainable Prisons Project. Photo: Jeff Muse.

In my experience, WCCW is quite different from the men’s prisons in which most of our work takes place. Though it’s heavily secured, a gentler, family-like atmosphere pervades the facility. We hope that we honored that character and linked inmates to the world outside the fence where many have parents, siblings and children rooting for them to succeed.

Interacting with inmates and correctional staff as well as extensive survey feedback gave us a good direction for future activities. Our next presentation, led by yours truly, will be “Sustainability 101” in early December. Afterward, we’ll help the prison adopt goals and strategies for lessening its impact on the environment while improving the health of everyone who lives and works there.

Beekeeping prisoners: Science inside the fence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beekeeping at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center

Blog post by Project Manager Jeff Muse:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beekeeping: More than honey

Blog post by Graduate Assistant Sarah Clarke:

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

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

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

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

Saving frogs takes teamwork

Blog post by Graduate Assistant Liesl Plomski:

Washington State inmates Harry and Al are not the only people raising endangered Oregon spotted frogs for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). In addition to offenders and staff at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center, there are multiple rearing institutions involved in this five-year WDFW project, including the Greater Vancouver Zoo, Mountain View Conservation and Breeding Centre, Northwest Trek, Oregon Zoo and Woodland Park Zoo.

Comprising what we call the “OSF community,” our frog-farming comrades have missions dedicated to wildlife conservation and talented staff who consult our team on many occasions. We simply couldn’t succeed without their insightful guidance, typically shared on line with Cedar Creek staff member Marko Anderson, who then relays feedback to Harry and Al inside the prison.

An Oregon spotted frog raised by offenders at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center (photo: Melanie Colombo).

An Oregon spotted frog raised by offenders at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center. Photo: Melanie Colombo.

As of August 18, Cedar Creek has 68 fat, healthy frogs destined for wetlands in Fort Lewis next month. Since early April, when WDFW scientist Marc Hayes delivered 80 eggs in tiny yogurt tubs, only 12 frogs have died. A careful balance of food, heat, clean water and loving care has resulted in an excellent 85% rate of survivorship – more than ten times the average outcome in the wild.

For an endangered species teetering on the edge of extinction, that’s good news. Soon, Cedar Creek’s frogs will join those from other rearing institutions in their new home at Fort Lewis. Like everyone involved in this effort, Harry and Al are proud to help amphibian diversity sustain its foothold in the Pacific Northwest.

How do we evaluate our programs?

Blog post by Graduate Assistant Sarah Clarke:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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