Conservation and Scientific Research

Environmental problems such as climate change and habitat degradation require innovative, responsive science. To connect society with ecological systems, scientists must work across the traditional boundaries of academia and research, and in turn learn from new audiences. In effect, both scientist and newcomer must become ambassadors to each other’s culture – learning the language, exchanging ideas and working toward common goals.

At the Sustainability in Prisons Project, we connect people inside and outside prison walls to create a collaborative, intellectually stimulating environment in which incarcerated men and women play key roles in conservation and advancing scientific knowledge. We encourage teamwork, mutual respect and a stewardship ethic among individuals who typically have little or no access to nature or opportunities in science and sustainability. At the same time, we give scientists a powerful opportunity to expand their work through the fresh perspectives and creative energy of the prison community.

With additional funding and support from visiting scientists, we hope to establish science projects throughout Washington’s prison system and with other “research ambassadors” such as the elderly in assisted living centers. At present, we have three projects underway, each involving inmates, college students and community partners:

Rearing Endangered Frogs

An Oregon spotted frog reared at Cedar Creek Corrections Center leaps into its new habitat. Photo by Cyril Ruoso.

An Oregon spotted frog reared at Cedar Creek Corrections Center makes a leap into its new habitat. Photo by Cyril Ruoso.

In early 2009, we began an unprecedented partnership with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to rear endangered Oregon spotted frogs, a Pacific Northwest species primarily impacted by habitat destruction and predation by exotic bullfrogs. Under the direction of Senior Research Scientist Dr. Marc Hayes, offenders and staff at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center work with Evergreen graduate students and other rearing institutions to augment the amphibian’s populations in the Puget Sound region.

Since 2009 two inmates have been employed as ecological research assistants inside the prison. Their responsibilities include feeding and cleaning the frogs; collecting data on water quality, growth, frog behavior and mortality; assisting with amphibian research studies, and installing and maintaining equipment within the “Frogga Walla” rearing shed. Each fall, frogs are released into protected wetlands at Joint Base Lewis McChord. As a result of their success, the captive rearing program at Cedar Creek has doubled capacity to accommodate up to 400 frogs. This program is supported by partner rearing institutions including Northwest Trek, Woodland Park Zoo, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, and the Oregon Zoo.

Breeding Endangered Butterflies

The Federally-listed endangered species the Taylor's checkerspot butterfly in the custom built green house at Mission Creek Corrections Center. Photo by Benj Drummond and Sara Joy Steele.

The Federally-listed endangered species the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly in the custom built green house at Mission Creek Corrections Center. Photo by Benj Drummond and Sara Joy Steele.

A new facility to breed and rear endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies was built by WDOC staff at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women in 2011 with funding from the Army Compatible Use Buffer program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Taylor’s checkerspots are a prairie dependent south Puget Sound butterfly which was once widespread in the region, but is now found only on a few scattered sites. With the guidance of biologist Mary Linders of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and staff of the Oregon Zoo, WDOC staff and inmates and students and staff of SPP this project will nearly double the rearing capacity for this species.

The facility is housed in a small purpose-built greenhouse with UV transmitting glass to provide the butterflies with the light they need for key metabolic activities. The Evergreen/SPP graduate students associated with the project get training from the Oregon Zoo endangered butterfly lab, and in turn help guide and teach the staff of 3-4 inmates. Up to 2500 checkerspots may be raised in a single year for release onto south Puget Sound prairie restoration sites, both on and off Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Inmates also captively breed the animals according to careful genetically sensitive protocols and participate in key research activities.

Prairie Restoration

Two members of the SPP conservation nursery crew at Washington Corrections Center for Women work inside one of the hoop houses. Photo by Benj Drummond and Sara Joy Steele.

Two members of the SPP conservation nursery crew at Washington Corrections Center for Women work inside one of the hoop houses. Photo by Benj Drummond and Sara Joy Steele.

In partnership with the Center for Natural Lands Management (CNLM) and Department of Defense, our three conservation nurseries have propagated nearly one million plants since 2009. The nurseries at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, Washington Corrections Center for Women, and Shotwell’s Landing conservation nursery (staffed by a crew from Cedar Creek Corrections Center) supply restoration efforts at Joint Base Lewis-McChord military base and other Puget lowland prairie restorations sites. These remnant prairies are one of the rarest landscapes in the nation, and many of the plants and animals that live on the prairie are themselves rare or even endangered. SPP nursery crews now propagate more than 50 species of plants, many of which have never before been grown in a nursery environment.

The conservation nurseries are managed by Carl Elliott, SPP Conservation Nursery Manager, with an SPP Graduate Research Assistant providing additional coordination at each site: Jaal Mann at Shotwell’s Landing, Bri Morningred at Washington Corrections Center for Women, and Drissia Ras at Stafford Creek Corrections Center. The Graduate Research Assistants work alongside the inmate technicians weekly, and take an active role in their education: presenting monthly workshops on propagation and restoration topics, providing reference materials, and discussing the wider context and impacts of the in-prison work.

Beekeeping Training and Research

An inmate bee keeper at Cedar Creek Corrections Center demonstrates working with the beehive to an SPP tour group. Photo by Shauna Bittle.

An inmate beekeeper at Cedar Creek Corrections Center demonstrates working with a beehive. Photo by Shauna Bittle.

Several prisons including Cedar Creek and Stafford Creek corrections centers have beekeeping programs. Scientifically engaging and ecologically vital, beekeeping can be a profitable skill for a post-prison career, be it in honey and beeswax production or pollinating fruits and vegetables in orchards and farms.

Offenders learn about bee biology and behavior, hive construction and maintenance, beekeeping equipment and commercial business practices. 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.

Learn more about our current science programs in our Blog, Stories, and Resources.

Share your expertise in science or sustainability with the Sustainability in Prisons Project: Call for Presenters and Researchers.