Washington State’s reputation as a political and social mover and shaker is no secret, and its position at the forefront of prison reform is no exception. For more than a decade, the Washington State Department of Corrections has teamed with Evergreen State College to implement the Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) in each of Washington State’s twelve state prisons, bringing science, nature and education inside the gates. The project intends to take positive advantage of inmates’ jail time by teaching the core tenets of ecological conservation, sustainable operations and community influence. In 2014, the project hit a benchmark when it hosted a prison reform TEDx talk inside Monroe Correctional Complex — the second in-prison TED event in history. The SPP has since taken root as the spearhead of state efforts toward prison reform, due in part to the ongoing Science and Sustainability Lecture Series.
The Science and Sustainability Lecture Series is currently active in five state prisons, including the longest running and most popular programs at Gig Harbor’s Washington Corrections Center for Women and Aberdeen’s Stafford Creek Corrections Center. Since its conception, the series has held approximately 200 lectures and workshops for a total of roughly 2000 incarcerated students and hosted more than 150 guest speakers. On Tuesday or Thursday mornings, anywhere from 25-80 inmates attend the 90-minute, hands-on informational sessions covering a range of topics including climate change, environmental justice, green building, plant and animal identification, butterflies and composting. In March, the Monroe Correctional Complex organized the first ever lecture series in a Washington Special Offenders Unit, and the guest speakers’ lesson about amphibians’ role in ecology was met with enthusiasm. Another memorable session was one that explored octopus intelligence, during which students were able to interact with a real red octopus.
New in 2016, a special lecture series at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center guides the technicians involved in the prison’s sagebrush conservation nursery. The ongoing program aims to provide restoration ecology education and training to incarcerated men in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho corrections centers, all in an effort to grow sagebrush to restore regional sage-grouse habitat. The best part (besides the enrichment opportunities for those serving time)? The same conservation tactics applied in our prisons appears to produce real-world results, as the greater sage-grouse escaped endangerment when assessed by the U.S. Department of Interior late last year. While state prison reform is a work in progress, we commend the SPP’s continued steps in the right direction.