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.


  1. Hey

    Why does this article broadly refer to human beings as Offenders? This title gives too much credit to the criminal justice system to assume that every single individual pictured or faceless, somehow offended some victim with some offensive act. I ask that you refer to these people as inmates or prisoners, or some term that doesn’t imply malice and guilt. Yes, they are imprisoned, that fact is not up for debate, but the methods and conditions that lead to their incarceration should not be so broadly applied, in my opinion.

    Reply to this comment ↓
    • jeftss

      You have posed an important question concerning the term that we apply to people who are incarcerated. Speaking as the Co-Director of the Sustainable Prisons Project, and as someone who had no experience with the world of prisons before I began this project, I, too, originally had a negative reaction to the term “offender”, because it seemed to negatively reinforce the image of the self and others, and have an overall negative effect.

      However, this IS the term that the Department of Corrections has chosen to use, perhaps because it reminds staff everyone that they are separate from staff and visitors, and thus maintains a needed distance. Our project strives to smoothly intersect – rather than conflict – with prison culture, so that we may be most effective with working within the system. Thus, in respect for their culture – and the fact that we are working on their ground – we use their term of choice. This was a conscious – though not easy – decision on our part.

      Know that we have thought deeply about this matter, and are open to thoughts and suggestions on resolving these issues. Thank you for your comments.

      Nalini M. Nadkarni, Project Co-Director

      Reply to this comment ↓
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