Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Prisoners turn over a new leaf with eye on environment

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
The Stafford Creek Corrections Center has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars through sustainable practices
The Stafford Creek Corrections Center has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars through sustainable practices
  • Ecology professor taught inmates environmental lessons
  • One prison saved $200,000 by recycling trash instead of having it dumped
  • Officials surprised by prisoners' enthusiasm for program
  • Inmate hopes to get job with forestry service after he is paroled

Aberdeen, Washington (CNN) -- The organic vegetables travel a short distance from the well-tended garden to the table where they are eaten.

Waste is carefully picked through and recycled, saving thousands of dollars.

The close-cropped lawns are maintained by push mowers to cut down on carbon emissions and gas expenses.

This is not some new designer eco-hotel where the rich and environmentally conscious can be pampered free of guilt.

It's a prison.

At the Stafford Creek Corrections Center, a few yards from the garden where strawberries and cucumbers grow looms a tower where guards watch inmates, high-powered rifles at the ready. A jungle of razor wire surrounds the facility.

Video: Prisons going green

When ecologist and professor Nalini Nadkarni first pitched the idea of Washington prisons going green she didn't know how her proposed partners -- convicted criminals -- would respond.

"Would they be full of tattoos with shaved heads? How would I connect with them?" Nadkarni recalled thinking, "They turned out to be the easiest audience to connect with. They have been so open so wanting to learn, so desirous to connect with the environment."

With the programs that Nadkarni and other instructors from the Evergreen State College helped devise, hundreds of inmates not only have a positive impact on their prison environment but on the world beyond the walls confining them.

Washington state inmates are restoring local protected but disappearing grasslands by hand planting thousands of seedlings in a prison greenhouse.

This has helped me get my head back on and stay out of trouble.
--inmate Tyson Prater

Inmates at another state prison raise an endangered species of frog. The inmates work for less than a dollar an hour and as a result of their incarceration are able to take on time consuming and labor intensive projects. But the inmates are not just doing grunt work, Nadkarni said.

"They are observing, taking notes, what they are doing is science," she said.

Both ecologists and prison officials have been surprised by the passion and seriousness of the prisoners involved with the project, Nadkarni said. The inmates raising the frogs had better results than a group of scientists conducting a similar project in a lab. Nadkarni coauthored a scientific paper with one inmate.

Another surprise has been the savings involved in the project.

"In the beginning a lot of the motivation is just around the money," said state deputy director Dan Pacholke, who green-lit Washington's first environmental programs behind bars seven years ago. Just at Stafford, officials saw savings of close to $200,000 a year just by recycling trash instead of paying to have it hauled to a landfill.

The benefits have gone far beyond fiscal savings, Pacholke said.

"When you get into it you find there's a lot you can do to get inmates involved in other programs whether it be gardening or recycling. Over time you are trying to connect offenders with something that is meaningful or with purpose that they feel is valuable and give them activities that offset the costs of prisons themselves."

Pacholke said officials have seen a drop in violence among prisoners participating in the program and the state plans to expand the program from four prisons to all 13 institutions. Inmates volunteer for the program and can't have any infractions or they get kicked out.

Inmate Toby Erhart, halfway through an 18-year sentence for rape and incest, said his work in a prison garden allows him to contribute something to society.

"Just because I am incarcerated it doesn't have to be a negative thing," Erhart said. "I see a lot of people being affected negatively and it doesn't have to be like that. I look forward to coming to work ever day. How many people can say that on either side of the fence?"

As he added scraps of food from the prison mess hall to a compost heap, inmate Tyson Prater said he too feels fortunate.

"This has helped me get my head back on and stay out of trouble," he said.

Prater said he is hoping to pick up the skills that would allow him to work for the U.S. Forestry Service when he is released from prison in three years.

Prison officials say that the program prepares inmates to work in certain sectors of the growing green jobs field. It also makes them environmentally conscious citizens who know about recycling, sustainable farming and conservation when they are released, they said.

Pacholke said the greatest dividends the program may provide may actually take place outside of prison.

"[About] 97 percent of the people in here are getting out some day and are going to ride next to you or I on inter city transit," he said "So what's the experience you want them to have when they come back out to the communities?"