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.



  1. Shannon Gallagher

    This is such a refreshing post to read! Not only is this man a great writer, showing links between the soil transformation and his own, but a strong and determined person. As someone that works in workforce development and sees products of mental health issues, incarceration, drugs, abuse, etc. everyday, it’s so uplifting to read a success story. Great work all around!

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