Inmate perspective on a prison garden project

Editor’s note: The following is a short but illustrative contribution from an inmate gardener at Cedar Creek Corrections Center.

I was offered the job of turning a disregarded field of weeds, rocks, and clay into a garden.  I had no prior knowledge of horticulture, but I accepted.  Between starting and now it has become more than a job.  It is almost an avocation.  I realized that sustainability is integral to a healthy society, so I began researching and applying this knowledge to my soon-to-be oasis.  I am grateful to the universe for the opportunity.

Inmate gardeners tend to Cedar Creek’s garden. Photo by Shauna Bittle.


Food from the garden at Cedar Creek Corrections Center is used to supplement the diets of the facility’s 480 inmates. Photo by Shauna Bittle.

Perspectives from an Inmate Service Dog Trainer at Cedar Creek Corrections Center

Perspectives from an Inmate Service Dog Trainer at Cedar Creek Corrections Center

by Thurman Sherrill, Cedar Creek Corrections Center

Editor’s note: Today’s post was written in early October 2012 by an inmate at CCCC who has been involved with the dog-training program there.  All SPP prisons in Washington have similar programs.  Benefits of these programs include the therapeutic value and increased responsibility that comes with working with animals and a connection to the community at large through service.

Hello readers. My name is Thurman Sherrill. I am a primary dog handler for the Brigadoon Service Dog Program here at Cedar Creek Corrections Center. Along with the secondary dog handlers we are all responsible for the training, nurturing, and well-being of each service dog. Our training consists of basic commands such as “sit”, “down”,  “stay,” “go in,” “kennel,” “loose leash walking,” and “come” just to name a few.

Recently, I trained my dog Donner to read basic commands of “sit” “down” and “stand” without verbal communication. Before Donner, my secondary trainer Don Glaude and I had a dog named Duke. He was a wiry little fella, but easy to train with the proper treats.

The behavior I was most impressed with in Duke is that we taught him to turn on a light switch, a trick he aced 9 out of 10 times.

From a personal standpoint, this program is not only a chance for me to give back to my community, but it has also given me a sense of pride and self-accomplishment. When I arrived here at Cedar Creek 7 months ago, being a primary dog handler was the furthest thing from my mind, until CO (Correctional Officer) Alberton asked me if I wanted to be in the dog program. There was not a long list of applicants putting in for this position, so at that very moment, I knew this was the task I wanted to take on because I welcome challenges. Since I entered this program along with my secondary, Mr. Glaude, we have helped graduate two service dogs, Boadie and Duke.

All of the primary dog handlers, along with the secondary trainers, work together as a unit and share all responsibilities equally when it comes to training and caring for these dogs. There is nothing better than the unity we share amongst one another, all coming from different backgrounds with different beliefs but with one common goal, which is to train these dogs and graduate them to the next level for more advanced training.

Our CUS (Correctional Unit Supervisor) Cheryl Jorban and our boss CO Alberton oversee the program to make sure that we  do our job properly, and also that the dogs receive proper medical treatment if necessary. We meet twice weekly on Mondays and Wednesdays to receive instructions from two professional Brigadoon Dog Trainers, Elizabeth and Denise, and they also evaluate the dogs’ progress along with ours.

The dogs we train will eventually be placed with veterans who may suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and/or Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). I am blessed and very fortunate to learn the skills that I have learned, and at the end of the day I am proud to say that I will always keep this experience with me, and continue to give back, because it feels good, and it is the right thing to do.

Thank you for this opportunity.


     Cedar Creek Corrections Center Inmate Dog Handlers talk about their experiences in the program for a tour group in September 2012. Photo by Shauna Bittle.


          A Dog Handler and his trainee demonstrate the light-switch skill for a tour group at Cedar Creek Corrections Center. Photo by Shauna Bittle.

CNN Visits Stafford Creek Corrections Center

CNN Visits Stafford Creek Corrections Center

By SPP Conservation and Restoration Coordinator Carl Elliot

The conservation nursery at Stafford Creek Corrections Center received unique visitors in mid-July this year.  A film production crew from CNN’s The Next List came out to the nursery with SPP Senior Advisor Dr. Nalini Nadkarni.  The crew was documenting the influence of Dr. Nadkarni and how her creative ideas have impacted society and individuals.  Dr. Nadkarni founded the Sustainability in Prisons Project in 2006 while she was a faculty member at The Evergreen State College. Since she had not been out the Stafford Creek for a couple of years, the growth and changes in the project were a real inspiration to her.

The CNN crew wanted to cover all angles of the conservation nursery. They asked SCCC Superintendent Pat Glebe why the administration would want to get involved in conservation projects. The interview allowed the Superintendent to explain how the work at the nursery fits into the philosophy and practice of corrections.  CNN also had the opportunity to see such corrections policies in action when they filmed the inmate nursery crew in action. Additionally, they had the opportunity to interview a few of the inmate crew members to get their perspective on the value of the program. The inmates were wary to participate at first.  The CNN crew expressed a genuine interest in the inmates’ perspectives and made each person comfortable in front of the camera.

Providing positive perspectives on the active role incarcerated people can take while they serve their sentences is one of the goals of the SPP. We aim to bring science and conservation to an underserved community, to find ways that conservation science can benefit them as they in turn benefit the conservation community.  The Next List airs on CNN this Sunday, October 28 at 2pm Eastern.   Check out The Next List Blog for more information.

SCCC Superintendent Pat Glebe is interviewed by CNN’s The Next List crew.

          A visitor from CNN films a Conservation Nursery Crew member preparing seed trays.





Composting and the Prison Experience

Composting and the Prison Experience

By Steve Mahoney

Editor’s Note: This blog post was written by an inmate who has worked with several SPP programs during his incarceration.

I should preface this piece by saying that not all prison experience results in positive outcomes.  Unfortunately the statistics regarding recidivism bear that out again and again.  I can only relate my personal experiences and the healing process I have been through.

I started my prison experience in the suicide section of the county jail nearly ten years ago.  I was placed in this unit with delirium tremens and severe suicidal ideations.  I was charged with First Degree Assault which resulted in a one hundred eighty-four month prison sentence.   I had absolutely no hope.  I was at the bottom.  I cared not for life and death would have been most welcome.

The yellow bucket is full.  Waste from breakfast, lunch and dinner combined to make a soup of organic material that seems fit only for maggots, flies and vermin of that particular ilk.  The bucket is weighed and thrown into the dank stall with waste from former meals.  The odor is unbearable to the uninitiated.  Bark chips are added to create heat; the process begins.

After trial I was sent to a maximum security prison in Forks, Washington to begin my sentence.  Stench of wasted lives and human failure personified assaulted me in my every waking moment.  The walking dead were mixed with the hopeless to create an environment that was volatile on good days.  It is only in hindsight that I realize my healing began at the very place I thought my life might end.

The organic pile has been building for a month.  The temperature has reached nearly one hundred sixty degrees.  Close to two thousand pounds of rotting material have been combined to make a mound that is ready to be moved.  The process continues.

I spent nearly two years with recurrent thoughts of suicide and other plans for my own demise.  I hadn’t seen my children the entire time I had been incarcerated.  One day while contemplating my very bleak future I was given a reprieve.  I was called into the counselor’s office and informed that my three youngest children would be coming to see me.  Hope!  Dare I?  My mother would bring them in about a week.  I couldn’t let these innocents see the mess I had become.  My children certainly deserved better than what I was serving myself on a regular basis.  I had to do something; the process begins.

Wheelbarrows loaded one after the other as the decomposing waste is transferred from the stall to the next stage of the process.  The temperature is still around one hundred and sixty degrees.  Evidence that the material is breaking down can be seen throughout.  Cabbage is now a wet, mushy substance that is putrefying moment by moment.  The smell seems more powerful than when the pile was in the safe confines of the stall.  Much work is yet to be done.

The visit with my children was bittersweet.  Children deserve to have their father home with them.  Children need their parents not only present but actively involved in their growth.  How could I provide my kids anything from the place I found myself in?  Long Distance Dads was the first program offered that I partook of.  I was out of the stall, I was still extremely hot and my life was odiferous to say the least, yet I was changing.

(continued below)

    The author works with compost at Cedar Creek Corrections Center during a recent facility tour for the SPP National Network Conference. Photo by Shauna Bittle.


Twice a week for the next six to twelve weeks the decomposing pile of organic waste is turned inside out.  The center of the pile becomes the outer and this is repeated over and over again until the temperature starts to drop.  While the temperature of the pile remains in the 120-150-degree range, change is becoming more visible.  The pile no longer looks like food waste.  The material is breaking down and begins to resemble bark mixed with dirt.  The odor remains strong.

Over the next several years I began working a program of healing and transformation.  I attended an anonymous meeting where I was given tools with which to conduct my life in a more harmonious union with myself and others.  I worked with mental health for over four years on anger and violence issues.  I spent three years with a substance abuse counselor learning a way to live my life sans alcohol.  Still a little warm on the inside but there was certainly a change my family recognized long before I did.

The pile of compost is dark brown, almost black, and has the smell of rich, luxuriant topsoil.  The temperature is almost down to the ambient temperature.  If the outside temperature is seventy degrees then the pile will be the same.  The last stage of the process is to sift the larger bark chips out.  Shovelful by shovelful the compost is put on a metal grate and hand-sifted.  The finished product will be used in the very garden that produced the vegetables that produced the waste in the yellow bucket so long ago.

I am not out of prison as of this writing; however, my thought processes resemble little the mess that lay on the suicide floor ten years ago.  I could say anything about who I have become yet I will let the actions I take each day speak for themselves.  I have had much healing and restoration that I can only credit to a mind that has been transformed in much the same way as the composting process.  I am actively involved in my own recovery.  I freely share the precious gems of mental health and stability that have been given to me.

My hope is that when I am released I will be like the compost and be used by society to produce a harvest that will benefit others.


Using Worms to Reduce Food Waste at Monroe Correctional Complex!

By Donna Simpson, Administrative Assistant 3 at Monroe Correctional Complex

The Monroe Correctional Complex is using worms to reduce food waste disposal costs while also providing a meaningful science and sustainability education and work program for offenders.

Currently at 5 million worms, the vermiculture program can process 10,000 pounds of food scraps per month, resulting in a cost reduction of more than 25%.  This translates into big savings for the prison, which previously spent $60,000 a year on food waste disposal before several sustainability initiatives began.

In January of 2010, staff and offenders developed the vermiculture program by collecting just 200 red wiggler worms (Eisenia fetida) for three small breeding bins built by offenders. Very little funding has been invested in the program. As the worm population grew, new and improved models of worm bins were built by converting discarded barrels, old laundry carts, food carts, and recycled mattress materials. This indoor commercial-sized “Wormery” currently has more than 170 worm bins designed and built by offenders.  Seventeen of the bins are “flow-through” style.  The flow-through bins are primarily built from re-purposed materials by offenders, whereas they would typically retail at more than $5,000 each.

This program provides other benefits, including the by-products produced by the worms. Worm castings (worm manure) are a valuable, high-quality organic fertilizer sought after in the organic gardening market. The “Wormery” also produces 400 gallons of worm tea fertilizer per week. The worm castings and worm tea are used in the several acres of gardens at Monroe Correctional Complex.

Studies have shown that offenders who participate in horticulture programs while incarcerated have a lower rate of recidivism. Offenders develop important vocational and life skills. The worm technicians at MCC wrote an operations manual that is now available to assist other institutions in starting new vermiculture programs. They have also developed an extensive breeding program capable of exporting worms to other Washington institutions, agencies or schools. Thus far, Washington State Penitentiary and Stafford Creek Corrections Center have received worms as a result of this program.


Worm breeding bins


Flow through bins designed and built by inmates


Worm Breeding Bins


246 Oregon spotted frogs released on September 24th!

246 Oregon spotted frogs released on September 24th!

By Graduate Research Assistant Andrea Martin

The Sustainability in Prisons Project has been busy this month hosting various media crews, conference attendees, and other visitors. One of our conservation projects, the Oregon spotted frog rearing project at Cedar Creek Corrections Center, has been the focus of lots of attention as the inmates and all of our rearing partners have approached this year’s release.

On Monday, September 24th, seven months of hard work and care culminated in the release of 246 adult frogs at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Unfortunately, the inmates were not able to attend the release at the military base, but they did get the chance to talk with reporters from the Associated Press and the New York Times who visited the prison to learn about the project. Additionally, the frog rearing program at CCCC is the subject of a forthcoming photography project by well-known French wildlife photographer Cyril Ruoso. Ruoso’s work, including photos of the OSF project, will be on exhibit this summer at the Museum of Natural History in Paris.

Unlike previous releases where cloudy skies and rain jackets are seen in every photo, this year the sun was shining as SPP Co-Director Carri LeRoy and SPP Graduate Research Assistants Andrea Martin and Brittany Gallagher joined JBLM and WDFW biologists, DOC staff, and two media crews to help release this year’s frogs.

The frogs raised at CCCC will be joined in early October by frogs from the Oregon Zoo, Woodland Park Zoo, and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park. That release will officially end the 2012 rearing season.

But the work of caring for the endangered species doesn’t end there for the inmate frog technicians at CCCC. Soon they will receive any undersize or underweight frogs from other institutions. The inmates will get the chance to fatten up and improve the health of any tiny frogs so they’ll be ready for release in the spring, before new eggs come in.

Thank you to all of our partners for another successful frog rearing season!

Editor’s Note: Make sure to check out the recent piece on SPP’s rearing program in the New York Times!

     Cedar Creek Corrections Center Superintendent Doug Cole holds two bins of frogs awaiting release at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Photo by B.Gallagher.

     SPP co-director Carri LeRoy watches two Oregon spotted frogs leap to their freedom during the frog release on Monday, September 24. Photo by B.Gallagher.

     Cedar Creek Classification Counselor Vicki Briggs releases a bin full of Oregon Spotted Frogs as photographers Matthew Ryan Williams (left) and Cyril Ruoso document the event. Photo by B.Gallagher.

     SPP Graduate Research Assistants Andrea Martin (left) and Brittany Gallagher hold Oregon spotted frogs for a moment before release at JBLM. Photo by C.LeRoy.


SPP National Conference and SPP In the News

SPP National Conference

By Joslyn Trivett and Brittany Gallagher

The Washington state segment of a national SPP network conference was a resounding success. Nearly fifty participants from Washington, Oregon, California, Ohio, Utah, Maryland, and national organizations brought their expertise in corrections, education, and sustainability to the Evergreen State College for the two-day conference, funded by a National Science Foundation grant. Forty SPP staff and partners supported and contributed to the event as well, hosting tours at three prisons and presenting SPP history and tips for success. Everyone learned from each other, benefiting from the diversity of experience and knowledge. All took away new connections with partners and allies, and a bolstered sense of how to implement or improve SPP-style programs.

One conference participant wrote to say: “I just wanted you to know that I really enjoyed the conference and [we] brought back some really good ideas we can work on out here in [our state].  I attended the State Sheriff’s Conference this week for jails and no one has sustainability on their radar.  So I brought it up. Maybe [we] can be the leaders out here…we’ll give it a try.”

Central to the conference was exploring approaches for creating a national network as a means for sharing resources, strategies, and successes. The conversation continues post-conference, and will grow further when we meet again for the Utah segment in March 2013.


       Sandy Mullins (far right), Director of the Office of Executive Policy at the Washington Department of Corrections, makes a comment during the panel discussion held at the Phoenix Inn on the first night of the national network conference. Secretary of Prisons Dan Pacholke (center) and SPP Conservation and Restoration Coordinator Carl Elliot (far left) look on. Photo by B.Gallagher.



Visitors to Stafford Creek Corrections Center explore “the bike shop,” where old bicycles and wheelchairs are repaired and refurbished for donation to community organizations. Tours were given at SCCC, Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women, and Cedar Creek Corrections Center. Photo by B. Gallagher.


SPP In the News

The Associated Press wire service wrote an article about the SPP and our national conference that has been published by USA Today, the Washington Post, the Seattle Times, Huffington Post,, and ABC News.  Photos from The Evergreen State College’s staff photographer, Shauna Bittle, are included in each story.

Shauna also visited Stafford Creek Corrections Center for a recent lecture with SPP Education and Evaluations Coordinator Brittany Gallagher.  Shauna produced a segment on the SPP’s Science and Sustainability Lecture Series that can be found at One Minute Evergreen.


       Chris Idso, Plant Manager and Sustainability Coordinator for Stafford Creek Corrections Center, tells visiting lecturer Anna Thurston about SCCC’s tilapia operation during a tour of the facility’s greenhouse. Photo by Shauna Bittle. For more photos from this tour, see Shauna’s One Minute Evergreen piece (link above).

New Tilapia Program at Stafford Creek Corrections Center

by Lucienne Guyot, Executive Secretary Correctional Industries and Lyle Morse, Director Correctional Industries

Construction is well underway on the greenhouse which will house tilapia at Stafford Creek Corrections Center near Aberdeen. The lean, fresh water fish will live in water heated by solar panels manufactured at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.  Offenders working in the new Correctional Industries program will rear the fish.  Besides feeding and general care for the tilapia, offenders will learn the craft of fish rearing including monitoring nitrates, nitrites, ammonia and regulating these substances along with water quality and temperature. They will perform equipment maintenance, monitor alarms and produce a protein source for use in offender meals. The facility is designed to have a capacity of 40,000 lbs of fish per year with the possibility for expansion.  The agency will develop a fish patty to serve as the primary dietary product.

The Department of Corrections is not new to offering offenders work in sustainability projects. This new Correctional Industries program is well-aligned with the on-going Sustainability in Prisons Project, a partnership between the Department, The Evergreen State College, state and federal agencies, and conservation organizations.

Tilapia Tanks and Greenhouse at Stafford Creek Corrections Center


SPP National Conference – Washington segment set for September 12th and 13th

SPP National Conference  – Washington segment set for September 12th and 13th

Developing the SPP National Network

by Joslyn Rose Trivett, SPP  Conference Coordinator

The SPP is excited to host the Washington state segment of a national conference on September 12th and 13th. The National Science Foundation has awarded us a grant to explore expanding our model for scientific education, sustainable operations, and research to other regions of Washington and across the nation. We have invited select scientists, corrections administrators, sustainability experts, and community organizations to participate in the conference. Our primary goal is to create a SPP National Network, a means for new and existing programs to share resources, strategies, and successes.

Conference activities will include tours of scientific projects and sustainable operations at three prisons in Western Washington. At The Evergreen State College in Olympia, all participants will engage in sharing their goals, plans, and successes. Benefits and challenges of the SPP approach and tips for success will be presented by existing project partners. The conference will also include an evening panel event at the Phoenix Inn in downtown Olympia.  Panel members representing conservation organizations, natural resource agencies,   graduate students, and the Department of Corrections will discuss their experiences with the SPP from 7:30-9:00 pm on Wednesday, September 12.  The panel discussion is open to the public and we invite you to join us.

The national conference will continue with a Utah segment in January or February, 2013. This will give us that chance to re-connect and further the action plans drafted in September. These promise to be innovative, productive meetings, and we look forward to sharing the results.

For more information about the SPP National Conference, contact Conference Coordinator Joslyn Trivett at 360-867-6735 or

SPP Conservation Nursery Internship Experience

SPP Conservation Nursery Internship Experience

by SPP Undergraduate Intern Candace Penn

Editor’s note: Candace, SPP’s undergraduate intern this summer, has been working with our Conservation Nursery project, growing endangered prairie plants.  Her post below was written in late July.

After just five weeks with the Sustainability in Prisons Project as a conservation nursery intern, I find myself at home at Shotwell’s Landing when I smell the fresh pile of soil being turned in the morning air. I really enjoy working with the volunteers and the Washington Department of Corrections (D.O.C.) community crews. But most of all, I love the ability to watch a seed grow into gorgeous plant. I feel such accomplishment, a kind of accomplishment you can’t get from working in a lab or classroom.

I have gained a different appreciation for the plants at Shotwell’s from my program at The Evergreen State College this summer, Creating Community and Health Through Gardens. For example, the Plantain we grow that serves as a vital habitat for the female Checkerspot butterflies to lay their eggs is also a healing herb that is also referred to as Indian band aid. The leaves can be used to heal open wounds or just cuts and scrapes. A tincture can be made with olive oil: a simplified instruction for this would be 1 part dried plantain leaves to 2 parts olive oil.

Aside from the beauty at the nursery there is a lot of behind the scenes work that gets done. Interns from the Center for Natural Lands Management collected strawberry runners and a group of interns, volunteers, [SPP Graduate Research Associate] Evan Hayduk and I cut growing nodes for propagation. The vines were stored in the fridge for a week, then DOC crews helped plant them and today I watered them in the greenhouse. I have been moving a lot of trays around trying to make sure the strawberries are out of direct sunlight since this could shock the young plants just starting to root. I really enjoy the collaborative working environment.

A DOC Community Crew member sows seed at Shotwell's Landing Nursery. SPP staff photo.


SPP Conservation Nursery Coordinator Carl Elliot trains interns at Shotwell's Landing. AmeriCorps photo.


DOC Community Crew members work on weeding Castilleja species at Shotwell's Landing. Photo by E.Hayduk.

To donate to the SPP and support unique learning and service opportunities for undergraduates like Candace, click here.