Tag Archives: Education

Highlighting the Many Successes of Nichole Alexander

Text by Erica Benoit, SPP Special Projects Manager.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Nichole Alexander, former SPP Butterfly Technician, on the 2-year anniversary of her release from the Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW). We spoke briefly about the impact of her SPP experience on her trajectory post-release, and even more about her long list of accomplishments in the last two years, including her graduation from Evergreen Tacoma.

Nichole Alexander presents on the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly program to a working group in 2018. Photo by SPP staff.

Nichole, pictured above, spent three seasons in the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly program at MCCCW before she released in April 2019. She said the most impactful part of her experience with SPP was the opportunity to work within a tight-knit team of individuals and across federal and state agencies, an experience in which she felt respected and valued. She also spoke to the therapeutic benefits of the program. Speaking of some major life events that happened while she was incarcerated, Nichole said,

“Being able to go out to the butterfly lab every day…the routine of being able to be in a work environment, an educational environment, to actually feel like we are giving back to the community, bettering myself and laying the foundation for my future, my kids’ future, was huge to pull me through some of the worst times that I have been through…I was actually able to find a light within myself in a very dark place.”

In addition, Nichole expressed that her experience with SPP laid the foundation for what she would accomplish next. In particular, she credits Kelli Bush, SPP Co-Director and Keegan Curry, former SPP Butterfly Coordinator, for providing the encouragement and support to apply to the Evergreen State College’s Tacoma campus while still incarcerated to attend post-release. In her opinion, they reminded her that she had potential.

Nichole Alexander and fellow techinician  Susan Christopher search for wild Taylor’s checkerspot larvae at Scatter Creek Wildlife Area, a reintroduction site for the butterfly. Photo by Keegan Curry.

She then jumped straight into finishing up her last quarter to earn her Associates Degree in Business Administration and Management from Tacoma Community College before starting her Law and Policy degree at Evergreen Tacoma. While pursuing higher education, she has also been heavily involved in giving back to the community. She organized a book drive for the youth residing at the Echo Glen Children’s Center and also worked with World Central Kitchen to provide thousands of meals to the homeless population. Professionally, she has worked for Ventures nonprofit as the Ready for Release Coordinator & Instructor. In this position, she briefly taught business & marketing to the incarcerated women at MCCCW before the program was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, her professional endeavors focus strongly on providing support resources for the unsheltered population around Seattle. She works for REACH as their Waterfront Outreach Care Coordinator, as well as JustCARE’s Street Outreach Program Coordinator. But her work does not stop when she goes home, as she has worked hard to connect her academic studies with the practical reality of what she has witnessed through her jobs.

Nichole handing out meals with World Central Kitchen, while representing the organization she works for, REACH.

Nichole has now successfully completed her undergraduate coursework at Evergreen Tacoma and is set to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Law and Policy. She speaks highly of the support she received while attending Evergreen and said she cannot praise it enough for how welcoming they were to her. She especially appreciates the patience and support from some influential professors, like Dr. Gilda Sheppard and Dr. Anthony Zaragoza, and essential support staff as she navigated challenges related to re-entering society. Even more, she emphasizes the sense of community gained there. It’s clear that she made the most of her community involvement at Evergreen Tacoma; she helped start the Justice Involved Student Group there. She also spoke excitedly about her dedication and involvement in organizing Evergreen Tacoma’s virtual graduation ceremony in 2020, which was featured in a New York Times article. It was important for her and her fellow coordinators to go out of their way to make the graduates feel that their success was seen and celebrated. To do this, they organized custom gift boxes from a local party supply company, local flower bouquets, and family meals prepared by local restaurants for each of the graduates. The emphasis on supporting local businesses in this effort was especially needed in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic. We only hope she is able to feel the same sense of accomplishment at her own graduation ceremony.

Nichole is not planning to slow down anytime soon. She was recently accepted into the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program, a recent expansion to the Evergreen Tacoma campus. Nichole plans to start that program this coming fall. She also communicated her plans to address issues within the carceral environment, including efforts to reduce recidivism and connect incarcerated mothers with their children. While incarcerated, Nichole helped organize the annual Girl Scout Beyond Bars (GSBB) sleepover to visit their moms at MCCCW. In particular, she helped connect the visiting girl scouts (including her own daughter) with the SPP butterfly program where they got to participate in fun activities that helped them earn badges! She continues to be a GSBB troop leader and expresses the importance of these opportunities in connecting girls impacted by incarceration with their mothers. In addition, WA Corrections recently featured Nichole and her daughter in a story about the importance of parent teacher teleconferences, a hopeful sign for future endeavors related to this effort.

Nichole shows her daughter, Brooklyn, around the SPP Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly program at MCCCW. She said it was so fun to bring her daughter to work because she had the coolest job in the world!

Speaking of the differences in her journey before and after incarceration, Nichole said “If you hear my history, for that person there’s no hope…Then to sit in the meetings that I sit in…and to work with the people that I work with today, there’s no ceiling. It’s unstoppable where you can be and how you can give back.” With that outlook, we know there are many more great things in store for Nichole Alexander, as well as those her life and work impacts.

Stafford Creek bee program teaches itself

Text and photos by Joslyn Rose Trivett, SPP Education & Outreach Manager

In early July 2020, Apprentice beekeeping student DeShan and Journeyman beekeeper Charles Roark check the health of a hive in the Stafford Creek Corrections Center program.

When the pandemic made it impossible for expert beekeepers from the outside community to visit, the program at Stafford Creek Corrections Center found a way to teach itself.

For a few years, the beekeeping program has been well-supported by a visiting expert who could deliver Washington State Beekeepers Association’s courses and certifications. From late in 2017 to summer 2019, beekeeper Duane McBride awarded Beginner certificates to 4 staff members and 76 incarcerated individuals and Apprentice certificates to 8 staff and 58 incarcerated beekeepers!

Stafford Creek’s bee club moved the hives to a warmer, drier site that easily can be seen by all visitors to the main prison campus.

During the past winter, building on that impressive foundation, the Stafford Creek program formed its own bee club and made plans to relocate their hives to a warmer, drier site.

At the same time, they gained a resident Journeyman beekeeper, Charles Roark; he had just transferred from Airway Heights Corrections Center (home of another amazing bee program). Apprentice beekeeper Rory had served as an assistant instructor in Duane’s last class. Supported by Bee Program Liaison Kelly Peterson, Charles and Rory joined forces to continue the education and certification program.

Apprentice students David Duhaime and David Lewis study and admire a worker bee perched on Lewis’ glove.

Together, they mentored Apprentice students in small groups, repeating each class three times so that every student could learn the same content and practice hands-on, all while keeping socially distanced. It was wonderful to hear that all partners — instructors, students, and the bees — thrived in the program. At the end of one session, a student said that it was his best day ever at the prison.

That magic was still alive when I visited the program in early July. Rory introduced the program by saying, “May I brag about our beekeeping program?” I was so glad he did! He was hardly the only one; there was a lot to be proud of. Ms. Peterson told us, “I don’t have to stress about this program…you guys are so good at it.”

I found many honeybees in the nearby garden beds — see that worker bee in the center of a big daisy?

They started the flight season with only two hives and had quickly grown the population to fill seven! The beekeepers told me about the character and quality of each queen and her hive and shared all kinds of observations. I was so pleased to see them in their element, showing the teamwork, creativity, and gentle respect that are the best parts of SPP’s bee programs.

On a frame of healthy bees,, you can see many different colors of flower pollen stored in the cells; these food stores are called “bee bread.”

To learn more about bee programs that endure during the pandemic, I recommend these articles:
Like honeybees, we are working together

Welcoming the bees back to WCC

The The Buzz About Honey Bees

When crisis inspires greater teamwork

Text by Marisa Pushee, Joslyn Rose Trivett, and Kelli Bush
Photos by Marisa Pushee

In these unprecedented times, we are adapting to meet the new needs of the community we serve. This has meant suspending the majority of in-person programs in favor of remote education.

Early in the pandemic, following the general pattern, the Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly Program partners suspended the program. But then, partners asked Could it be possible to restart? Everyone agreed that human health and safety had to be the top priority. Also, we heard from the Washington Department of Fish & WildlifeMission Creek Corrections Center staff, and incarcerated technicians that the program was very important to them. They asked that we problem-solve together, to collaborate on figuring out if there was any combination of rules and protocols that would allow for a re-start.

Technician Erin Hart works in one of the greenhouses, following best practices by wearing a face mask, social distancing, and implementing extensive cleaning protocols.

Following all COVID-19 safety protocols, we met several times and discussed a potential restart. Prison staff demonstrated that they were eager to prioritize the health and safety of the incarcerated technicians, willing to adapt program practices, and could support increased remote communication as SPP-Evergreen limited our prison visits. Technicians requested the program be restarted and expressed that, in the program space, they felt a reduced risk of contracting the disease. The lead wildlife biologist agreed that operations must be contingent on new protocols to reduce human health risks.

An adult Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly rests in an oviposition pot where she will lay her eggs.

Ultimately, all partners agreed that the program could re-start with new safety protocols in place. A key element of the re-start plan was to continuously reevaluate program safety, to ask each other regularly and often what could be done to make it safer and, most importantly, was it really safe enough.

The butterflies came back to Mission Creek. Social distancing, masking, and disinfection protocols were meticulously followed. Commitment to safety and open communications were fulfilled. The rearing season was successful for the butterflies and for the people involved.

Butterfly program coordinator Keegan Curry holds a rearing enclosure called an oviposition pot (a Plantago plant with a net over it) near the back door of a greenhouse.

Bringing honeybees back to WCCW

Text and photos by Shohei Morita, SPP Bee Programs Coordinator

Kathleen Humphrey proudly holds her personalized bee-themed bookmark, presented to all student beekeepers to use during their future studies. (Her official certificate will arrive in the mail soon.)

Last week, we celebrated 16 incarcerated and 5 staff students who just completed Washington State Beekeepers Association (WASBA)’s beginning beekeeper course. Program partners gathered to celebrate at Washington State Corrections Center for Women (WCCW). Taught by expert beekeeper Sandra Fanara of West Sound Beekeepers Association, the students learned the basics of beekeeping. This prepares them for more advanced study and the hands-on field work involved in the apprentice level course. After completing the course, there was a celebration to recognize their accomplishment with bee themed cupcakes. Students will also receive an official certificate from WASBA.

To celebrate, I brought bee-themed cupcakes complete with tiny edible bees and flowers! They were unusually delicious.  🙂

This was the first time since 2017 that WCCW has hosted the WASBA course. We are excited that many of these students plan to immediately advance apprentice course, which will start as soon as the bees arrive in April. In prepare, students, staff, and expert beekeeper will clean all the equipment and prepare the new apiary. Then they will be ready to dive in and experience working with honeybees. We are so excited to see this program flourish and provide therapeutic and empowering experience to the students.

Thank you to our expert beekeeper Sandy Fanara, and to our DOC liaisons Carrie Hesch and Muriah Albin for their commitment and dedication to reviving this program. Most importantly, thank you and congratulations to the newly certified student beekeepers!

What’s in a thesis

Text by Bethany Shepler, SPP Green Track Program Coordinator

Note: please be aware that individuals featured in this story and in these images have victims who are concerned about re-victimization; any sharing or promoting should keep that risk in mind.

I presented this copy of my thesis to the advisor team at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, represented here by Kelly Peterson and David Duhaime. Photo by Erica Benoit.

This past June Dr. Tyrus Smith signed my thesis. He was my thesis advisor and his signature validated all of my hard work over the last year-and-a-half. Suffice it to say, I was ecstatic! My thesis process was more difficult than I imagined it would be, took longer than I expected, and I am truly proud of the end product.

Following completion of my thesis, I returned to SCCC to present on the process and findings. Photo by Erica Benoit.

Before we move on, I could not have gotten to that moment of completion without the support of Evergreen Master of Environmental Studies faculty (Dr. Tyrus Smith, Dr. Kevin Francis, and Dr. Shawn Hazboun), my friends and family, my classmates, the people who participated in my study, the loggers that answered all of my questions, and the constant support from incarcerated and staff advisors at Stafford Creek Corrections Center (SCCC). Thank you all!!

Thank you to everyone who supported me and made this research possible! That’s me presenting my thesis to the community at The Evergreen State College. Photo credit: Joslyn Rose Trivett.

Thesis advisors in prison

From the very beginning of my thesis process, I knew I wanted to work with incarcerated individuals and SPP supported me in making this possible. So, I invited environmental studies experts housed at SCCC to work with me as advisors. I worked with the Roots of Success instructors and the Roots liaison at the facility, Kelly Peterson. A photo of me and the advisors is shown below.

These advisors helped me formulate the roots from which my thesis grew and greatly contributed to the process, too. From left to right: Cyril Walrond, Steven Allgoewer, David Duhaime (top), Anthony Powers, Kelly Peterson, and myself. Photo credit: SPP Staff.

Over the past two years, we met on multiple occasions. To develop a deeper understanding of the subject matter, the incarcerated advisors studied the articles and references I provided; they read peer-reviewed academic articles, research planning guides, newspaper articles, and other publications. They offered feedback and ideas on several aspects of the research including topic selection, philosophical framework, research design, study population, survey design, and presentation of the topic.

Seminar

This past February, Kelly Peterson helped me set up a seminar with a larger group, and included Dr. Smith. We asked all participants to read four pieces beforehand, to prepare for the discussion. Two were data-heavy, very dense, dry academic articles describing the theoretical framework I used for my thesis. Another was a piece President Roosevelt wrote after visiting the Pacific Northwest, in which he proposed a forest plan. And the last was an academic article about common predictors of environmental attitudes.

Here’s a group photo of the people who participated in the thesis seminar. Photo by Bethany Shepler.

I remember being nervous that no one would want to talk and I could not have been more wrong! They had all clearly done deep dives into the reading and made interesting connections I had missed in my own review of the literature. Everyone had thoughtful input and suggestions for things to explore and add to my thesis. The seminar was lively and thoughtful and there was never a quiet moment.

What is my thesis about?

My completed thesis is titled: A critique of the New Ecological Paradigm: Stewardship and a case study of the Pacific Northwest logging industry. It explores the concept of stewardship and how it fits into the New Ecological Paradigm. The study population was people actively working in the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest.

I presented my thesis as part of the Environmental Engagement Workshop Series at SCCC. Photo by Erica Benoit.

This research project was an exploratory study designed to document the ecological attitudes of loggers in the Pacific Northwest. As an exploratory study, I sought to contribute to a gap in the empirical literature: how loggers view the environment. I gathered their responses to the New Ecological Paradigm questionnaire, a measure of their ecological attitudes. Also, I collected information about each participant’s experiences in nature and their socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds.

Hanging out with loggers

Over the summer Pulley Corporation, an FSC®-Certified logging company agreed to let me shadow them for a day. This was an incredible opportunity for me and I am so grateful to everyone for answering all of my questions. Being able to speak with loggers who work in the field expanded my background knowledge on logging in the Pacific Northwest, and helped inform the survey I used to gather data. From these interactions, and many others, I noticed two attributes shared by all: a stewardship mindset and pro-ecological attitudes.

Regardless of their obvious pro-ecological attitudes, the sample population scored lower on the New Environmental Paradigm than most Washington State residents. This suggested to me that the New Environmental Paradigm measures attitudes using a socially-exclusionary lens.

When I shadowed the crew for the day, Pulley Corporation was working at Mt. St. Helens repairing and restoring an elk migration path for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Photo by Bethany Shepler.

So, what’s in a thesis? Well, in my case, a thesis is a collaboration of very diverse groups of people, all environmentally inspired and dedicated, and all willing to support me as a graduate student. I am lucky to have all their brilliance and input in those pages.

Aquaponic knowledge, from one program to another

By Marisa Pushee, SPP Conservation Program Coordinator

Note: please be aware that individuals featured in this story and in these images have victims who are concerned about re-victimization; any sharing or promoting should keep that risk in mind.

This week, students and conservationists gathered in the greenhouse at Cedar Creek where Anna Duron led a workshop for the aquaponics program. Anna serves as the SPP Coordinator for the Emergent Vegetated Mat (EVM) program at Stafford Creek and drew from her background in utilizing aquaponics for conservation initiatives. The workshop focused on best practices when working with aquaponics and the chemistry behind maintaining a stable system.

SPP Coordinator Anna Duron and SPP Biological Science Technician Will Rathgeber show workshop participants how to test pH, nitrite, nitrate, and ammonia for the water in the Cedar Creek aquaponics system.
Anna describes her work with the EVM aquaponics system at Stafford Creek, detailing the differences between varying approaches to aquaponics.

SPP Biological Science Technicians as well as students and TAs from Centralia College‘s horticulture program joined for the hands-on learning opportunity. They tested the pH, nitrite, nitrate, and ammonia levels of the water in the aquaponics system, discussing why certain results were more desirable and how the plants respond if any of the readings are too high or too low.

Many of the workshop participants were current TAs or students in the Centralia College horticulture program at Cedar Creek.
Workshop participant watches the fish enjoy their breakfast.

Since many of the workshop participants were horticulture enthusiasts, they compared successes and challenges, finding commonality in obstacles like plant nutrition and integrated pest management. We look forward to continued collaboration with such an engaged group of students!

Workshop participants discuss plant health.

The Magic of Caring for Turtles

By William Angelmyer, former SPP Turtle Technician and current student at The Evergreen State College. Photos by SPP staff unless otherwise noted.

Bill worked as a Turtle Technician for SPP from 2015-2018 and is now completing his undergraduate degree at The Evergreen State College. Note that some of the turtle care protocols referenced in this blog have changed since Bill left the program.

Bill Anglemyer holds at western pond turtle.

“Any job that offers an opportunity to change perceptions is more than just a job; it’s a learning experience.”

Summer is coming to an end. This is an exciting time for the SPP Turtle Technicians at Cedar Creek. The end of summer means that soon the technicians will be receiving new turtles. Speaking from personal experience, I know that summer is a good time to do a lot of reading and research—basically, doing book work. Without turtles to manage, we technicians spend the summer studying and catching up on other projects.

Raising mealworms for the next round of turtles and entering data for a woodpecker monitoring project  keep us busy every day, but the real valuable time is the time spent learning about biology and animal behavior. Of course this takes some self-motivation to launch because you are responsible for your own choice of study. No one makes you read text books. For those of us that use education as a coping mechanism to deal with incarceration, we can’t be stopped from studying. After an entire summer of reading, though, it is a refreshing change to receive new western pond turtles and start practicing animal care and shell disease management. Although this hands-on work carries with it a new level of stress and anxiety, it also provides valuable moments fraught with emotional ups and downs. Caring for the turtles brings home some of the studying from a theoretical context into a concrete reality. All of the turtles we receive after summer have gone through a recent debriding process. Debriding is a procedure where portions of their shells have been cut away in order to stop the disease from spreading.

Mealworms production at Cedar Creek. All part of a balanced turtle diet.
Anglemyer reveals the healed plastron of a turtle about to be released into the wild.

Unfortunately, this procedure—removing damaged portions of the shell—also leaves the turtles with wounds that have to be taken care of diligently in order to ensure that they heal efficiently and without infection. This is where the emotional rollercoaster part of the job comes to bear. Not all the turtles heal at the same rates. Some turtles heal slowly. Sometimes, they heal very slowly. Sometimes turtles will stop eating for days or weeks. Cataloging their  progress and behavior can be worrying at times.

Turtle Technician Bill Anglymeyer and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist Emily Butler evaluating turtles before releasing them back into their habitat.

However, these new worries are accompanied by a refreshing hands-on learning experience. Many of the technicians have never worked closely with reptiles. Many people have preconceived notions about reptiles having a deficiency of personality. Moreover, reptiles are stereotyped as being only focused on needs and lacking social interactions. After working closely with turtles, though, it is easy to recognize the personalities of each individual. Like many mammals, some are social and playful, some are fearful and isolate, and some are fixated completely on food.

Western pond turtle, a state listed endangered species and one of only two native turtles in Washington State.

Seeing this new perspective is one of the most valuable experiences I gained as a Turtle Technician. Any job that offers an opportunity to change perceptions is more than just a job; it’s a learning experience.  My work with SPP was also greatly valuable to me because seasonal changes offer such a wide variety of experiences. Summer means book work and the fall means implementing that study into practical experience—along with the experience of caring for real animal lives. I miss my times at the CCCC Turtle Area. That may seem a little insane, considering I was incarcerated at the time. But the time I spent learning and caring for creatures, which I had had very little understanding of before, was a magical time during which I rarely realized that I was incarcerated.

Bill on Evergreen’s organic farm. Photo by Tierra Petersen.

Peer education created by and for incarcerated gardeners

By Carly Rose, SPP Curriculum Development Coordinator and Emerico, Gardening Curriculum Author

Gardeners tend to the soil in the gardens at Monroe Correctional Complex – Washington State Reformatory Unit. Incarcerated authors at MCC-WSRU are working with SPP to author chapters on Vermicomposting, Bokashi Composting, and Soil Science. Photo by Joslyn Rose Trivett.

For the past six months, gardeners at Stafford Creek Corrections Center and Monroe Correctional Complex – Washington State Reformatory Unit have been helping to build the new Gardening Curriculum. To develop course chapters, authors are combining expertise gained through personal experience with knowledge from scholarly research. Authors are working on a voluntary basis: they elect to share based on their desire to explore and describe a particular topic; some of the chapters currently in development include Vermicomposting & Bokashi Composting, Soil Science, the Soil Food Web, Planting and Harvesting Vegetables in Prison, Seed Saving, and Aquaponics.

Developing part of a curriculum while incarcerated requires some creativity. In order to submit materials, authors have provided handwritten work that is then typed and formatted by myself. One author types his work into JPay (social email) and mails it to a family member who mails it back, which gives him a pre-typed manuscript to submit. Most authors also provide their own illustrations and diagrams to be included in the chapter. Authors use a mixture of narrative from personal experience, tips on gardening that are specific to a prison environment, and college-level scholarly research to produce their work. They provide instruction that is created by and intended for incarcerated gardeners across the country. Authors and I send materials back and forth so they may provide feedback and edits on separate drafts of their work. One of the authors, Emerico, offered a personal narrative on his motivation to learn and write about his topic, Aquaponics. 

Introduction to Aquaponics by Emerico

I first became interested in aquaponics after reading a few articles and watching some educational television programs. I was working on the gardening crew at Stafford Creek and when the gardening classes started, I was thrilled to be included. Over time, I have learned every person—incarcerated or not—has a purpose in life. My purpose was building an aquaponics system with no budget. I had to lose my freedoms before I could find my purpose in life. This is where aquaponics all began for me. I had an idea, so I put it to paper and talked to the garden supervisor about the idea.

One of my first jobs on the garden crew was working with the hydroponics system. I found out that this type of system, which requires chemicals to grow plants and vegetables, is expensive and I believe far less healthy. My goal was to get away from using chemicals and go to more of a natural resource system. I thought about a way to build a small-scale aquaponics system that uses fish to feed the vegetables. After many attempts to get it approved, and with the help of the garden crew, we built a recycled materials aquaponics system. The first part of the vision of my idea came to life.

This is part of the aquaponics system built by Emerico, who is authoring a chapter on Aquaponics. He explained that he wants the chapter to be accessible to both incarcerated gardeners and low-income families outside of prison. Photo by Jacob Meyers.

There is a sense of satisfaction when growing your own vegetables whether for self/family or others. I believe also that gardening can relieve stress. This country is blessed; there should not be anyone going hungry. We see too much senseless hunger in our country and throughout the world. There must be a solution to this problem. How can we do this? By making people aware and teaching them that aquaponics is not only a healthier way to grow produce, but is also cheaper. Aquaponics saves money in the long run for people and their families, and is a fun way to bring families together in the garden.

As for me, it is all about giving back and helping those in the community and throughout society that are less fortunate. The purpose is to get a finer perception of aquaponics through research. Anyone can pretty much build a small-scale aquaponics system with a limited budget and few resources. I hope this brief overview has helped you. Above all else, have fun.

From his lab notebook, Emerico shows a diagram of the aquaponics system. Photo by Joslyn Rose Trivett.

Next Steps

The course is projected to pilot in winter of this year. The two teams of authors plan to be part of that process as well; they will be among the first to try out the new program. Their feedback during and after the trial run will help us further refine the course, and then be ready to share it statewide and beyond.

All of the authors have personal experience gardening in prison, working on projects such as this garden at Stafford Creek Corrections Center. This garden is tended by individuals serving a life sentence, and is known as the “lifer’s garden.” Photo by Ricky Osborne.

Connecting to science

By Situe Fuiava, SPP Conservation Technician at Washington Corrections Center. Mr. Fuiava wrote this piece in response to a call for writing on “science in prison.”

Note: please be aware that individuals featured in this story and in these images have victims who are concerned about re-victimization; any sharing or promoting should keep that risk in mind.

My name is Situe Fuiava and I have been incarcerated since the age of 16. When I first came into prison I only knew about street knowledge. I didn’t really know much about anything academically let alone science.

Situe Faiva receives seeds picked by a program visitor; program technicians collect seeds from violets and other prairie plants for Salish lowland restoration efforts. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

What led me to this path of learning is when my nephew asked me to help him with something in school. I couldn’t even answer him. I glamourized and answered everything he asked me about the streets, but could not give him anything academically. That was one of the worst feelings I have ever felt. That was when the light finally turned on for me. I knew that I had to change something before I was going to have a family reunion in prison instead of the community.

During my time of incarceration, one of the programs that dramatically changed my life is the Sustainability in Prisons Projects (SPP). The SPP program is responsible for involving incarcerated individuals in multiple sustainable programs in the United States. In Washington State, in conjunction with Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) and the Center for Natural Lands Management (CNLM), this program is working towards the restoration of prairies in the greater Northwest. To assist with the program, at Washington Correction Center (WCC) incarcerated individuals work with the largest violet nursery in the world. We also have created the very first demonstration prairie in Department of Corrections (DOC).

The Prairie Conservation Nursery Crew: pictured from left to right are technician Fred Burr, TAs John Thompson and Situe Fuiava, and technicians Michael Johnson and Dustin Sutherland.
Situe Fuiava collects violet seeds in the nursery. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

I love that we have our own demonstration prairie garden here at this facility because it shows everyone the relationship between the violets and other species that are also found in the prairies of the South Puget Sound area. For me, the best ways of learning and teaching about prairies is by providing hands-on experiences and allowing people to see what happens in a natural prairie. This teaches us what species grow best around the violets and what species are not as beneficial for them. This is one of the few times being incarcerated has been a benefit to me. Having the ability to care for the violets around the clock (besides weekends) is pleasant as well as challenging. We have the ability to sustain life. We built the demonstration garden in 2018 and have seen it flourish in the first season. This is our way of teaching and learning; science in its finest form. 

I have worked in many places in the prison system.  Some of my jobs have been gym porter, barber, kitchen worker, unit porter, dayroom porter, and plumber. Only now do I have a job that challenges me mentally.

A good brother of mine was already working in the program introduced me to the SPP program and horticulture program. I decided to go into it without expectations and have an open mind. I was eager to learn something new and further my academic education, but I did not want to expect to get something from it and end up disappointed.

This job has been the best I have had.  It gives me the opportunity to work and to gain knowledge I would have never taken the time to learn otherwise. Since starting my job with the SPP program, I’ve taken classes on bee handling, record keeping, seed germination, stratification process, transplanting, watering techniques planting depth, how to check the soil, water P.H levels, and when the first and last frost are so that we know when to sow.

I have also learned that everything is connected in one way or another. Everything has the same needs. These are things that we might not understand because we did not grow up learning them. All matter on earth is made up of one or more of the 118 chemical elements that are found on earth. The chemical element carbon is essential to everything because it is the building block for all living organisms. Just as carbon is vital to the foundation of an organism, water is also needed to sustain life on earth. We need soil because the soil is the building block for the evolution of vascular plants. Vascular plants played a big role in a plant’s ability to live further away from water. Without one of the three elements, life on earth as we know it would be nonexistent. Without carbon or water, life on earth would be stuck at the Bryophyte stage.

We need “Nature”. Nature is a great teacher of science. It has a way of creating great relationships within its own ecosystem. I find it interesting that this planet has been here for billions of years. Humans take up a small fraction of that timeline. With minimal time we inhabited the earth, we caused more harm than good to our planet. I believe that if we start paying attention to the relationships that happen organically and naturally in nature, that knowledge can give us the answer of how to prolong our time on earth.

Viola adunca blooms in the beds at Washington Corrections Center. Photo by Alexandra James.

Like I said, the more I learn, the more I believe that everything is connected.

When I first started talking about nature, I thought of nature as a place that hasn’t been touched or bothered by humans. I have learned that nature is everything. Nature is everything that the earth produces naturally. So if everything provided by the earth is considered nature, would we consider a manmade environment nature? If everything on earth is created on earth, why would we say that everything that is manmade isn’t nature when the things that we use to make these structures are from earth. In the wild, animals use everything within their means to survive. When we humans take from nature we take more than what we need. I believe that when we build man-made structures it’s still nature as long as it has a way to give back to nature, instead of just leeching off the eco-system.

When I think of sustainability I think of the ability to keep life going. What we are doing here at Washington Corrections Center is helping with sustaining the life of the silverspot butterfly by growing Viola adunca and Viola praemorsa. With growing these species we are naturally creating an environment for the pollinators.  

Someone’s in-prison experience with science can positively affect his or her choices by simply using the scientific method. Most men incarcerated are here because we tend to make claims without even having any evidence to back up what we claim to have been real or true. If we are never taught to research or question what we learn, it can have a negative effect on our behanviors. What we display on a day-to-day basis are learned behaviors. If we are raised up and we see everyone doing the same thing, whether right or wrong, we automatically think it’s the norm.