Ecology in Prison

Aug 11 2010 Published by under [Biology&Environment]

Nalini Nadkarni is a biologist at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington who is an expert on tree canopy ecosystems. She also does a considerable amount of science outreach to the public.

One of the educational programs she organized is the Sound Science program for urban youths that combines science and music by rapper C.A.U.T.I.O.N.., which sounds like it was a lot of fun for the participants.

More unusual is her Sustainable Prisons Project, which teaches ecology and biodiversity conservation to prisoners in several Washington state prisons. The goals of the program are broad:

Our mission is to reduce the environmental, economic and human costs of prisons by training offenders and correctional staff in sustainable practices. Equally important, we bring science into prisons by helping scientists conduct ecological research and conserve biodiversity through projects with offenders, college students and community partners.

Some of the research projects that prisoners have been involved include raising endangered frogs and  figuring out to grow moss for the horticultural trade

The education isn't only academic. The program also helps prepare inmates for "green collar" work by teaching them skills like hydroponic and organic gardening, beekeeping and pest control. At least one participant hopes to work for the U.S. Forestry Service when he is released.

And Nadkarni points out that the program has emotional benefits as well, by providing the prisoners an "intellectual and physical connection to the outside world".

Here's a video about the program.

See also Nalini Nadkarni's brief TED talk.

I know this may seem like an odd first post, since I assume that most of you readers don't spend the bulk of your time in a prison cell. But I think it's a good example of how science - both the knowledge of scientific facts and the process of scientific inquiry - can have a positive impact even for populations outside of the mainstream of society.

6 responses so far

  • DNLee says:

    were you reading my twitter feed earlier today? I was tweeting about recidivism and science outreach. We are SO on the same page.

  • peggy says:

    Sounds like I should subscribe to your twitter feed!

  • Zuska says:

    This is sooooo interesting! Science activism!
    Do you know how/where she got the funding for this program? Because I know that a lot of the programs that have been conducted for prisoners in years past - literacy programs, classes and writing programs and so on - have really been hurting as funds have been pared back to next to nothing for such "luxuries". People seem to want to punish prisoners over and over and over again, in as many ways as possible, in prison and after they leave, and then cross their arms and say "see? I told you" when the recidivism rate climbs.

  • Zuska says:

    Ah, I found this on the project webpage:

    "In 2002, DOC responded to Governor Locke’s directive to enhance the sustainability of its prisons by conserving energy and water, limiting and recycling waste and constructing green facilities. Concurrently, Evergreen began pilot activities at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center to link scientists and conservation specialists with a non-traditional audience – incarcerated offenders.

    The need to expand science and sustainability into new territory led to the Sustainable Prisons Project. Initiated on July 1, 2008, via an Interagency Agreement, the project is funded by a two-year $298,344 contract from DOC to Evergreen."

  • peggy says:

    From the video my impression is that a good chunk of her funding came from the Washington State Department of Corrections and/or the State of Washington. Part of the program is implementing "greener" policies in the prisons (recycling programs, etc) and those have apparently been big money savers.

    It sounds like it's been a win for everyone involved - the prisoners, the DoC and the scientists.

  • peggy says:

    [I made my comment before I noticed your second comment had been flagged as spam. Must have been the link.]