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Prisoners Work to Protect the Planet


Inmate Toby Erhart sows Harsh Indian Paintbrush seeds in the Stafford Creek Corrections Center conservation nursery. (Tom Banse/VOA)

Inmate Toby Erhart sows Harsh Indian Paintbrush seeds in the Stafford Creek Corrections Center conservation nursery. (Tom Banse/VOA)


The United States has the largest prison population in the world. More than 2 million people are jailed. China is second with about 1.7 million.

In some U.S. prisons, inmates are not just “doing time,” as they often describe their prison sentences. Some prisoners are working to protect the environment.

Near Olympia, Washington, inmates are raising rare and endangered plants, animals and insects for release in the wild. The project began 10 years ago when a state university teamed up with the prison.

Tom Banse went to prison to find out more for the Voice of America. Here is his story.

A prison teaches how to save the planet

Stafford Creek prison is in the northwestern U.S. state of Washington. To enter the prison’s garden area you must go through two metal detectors. Then you have to pass through double gates topped with sharp wire and guarded by several armed prison police.

​In the garden, a small crew of inmates is planting flowers. The flowers will be moved after several months to wild areas around Washington's coastline. The plants will provide food for endangered butterflies.

Inmate Adrianne Crabtree and Captain Chad Naugle plant violets in a meadow of the Siuslaw National Forest to support recovery of the threatened Oregon Silverspot butterfly. (Larkin Guenther, IAE, Dec. 2014)

Inmate Adrianne Crabtree and Captain Chad Naugle plant violets in a meadow of the Siuslaw National Forest to support recovery of the threatened Oregon Silverspot butterfly. (Larkin Guenther, IAE, Dec. 2014)

"These plants are so fickle!"

Toby Erhart is an inmate with plenty of time to experiment with growing seedlings. The inmates are paid very little for their work. Mr. Erhart says he believes prisoners and the business of growing rare plants go together well.

"You cannot have a nursery that produces these for money because they would go broke -- or the cost would be so high that nobody could ever restore anything with 'em (them.) That's why this is such a good fit to have prisoners doing this ‘cause (because) ... well, I mean they don't have to pay us much."

Mr. Erhart is serving time for child rape. He says his work growing plants in prison has changed him. He says he is more "conscientious," or thoughtful about doing what is right.

Prison supervisor Pat Glebe likes to see such change in inmates. He says the prison garden work reduces violence in the prison.

"It helps with the level of violence in the prison because these inmates all of a sudden have something else to do. They see the value in it. And they see the value of giving back."

Prisoners begin life with a new outlook

Mr. Glebe says many people think they know what the inside of a prison is like, but often they are wrong. Their "preconceived notion," he says, is challenged when they visit Stafford Creek prison.

Stafford Creek prison's conservation nursery opened five years ago. Since then, the nursery has produced more than one million rare and endangered grassland plants.

Inmates in other U.S. prisons are also using conservation projects to turn over new leaves -- or begin life with a fresh, new outlook.

At a state prison in Ohio, inmates are raising endangered small amphibians called eastern hellbender salamanders. They will release the animals into the wild.

This is a Cave Splayfoot salamander. (Sean Rovito 2006)

This is a Cave Splayfoot salamander. (Sean Rovito 2006)

In Maryland, inmates prepare bags of oyster shells that will be used to repair the nearby Chesapeake Bay.

Oregon state has fertile ground to grow conseravtion projects

In Oregon, the law requires that all prisoners work full-time or attend classes. Prison managers must find meaningful labor for everyone. This may explain why Oregon's prison system was fertile ground to begin a project such as a conservation nursery.

A combination of federal, state and private money covers most program costs.

Tom Kaye directs the Institute for Applied Ecology, one of the partners in the Oregon Sustainability in Prisons Project. He says, as you might expect, working in a prison can be difficult.

"Just going to visit and volunteer at a prison is no simple task. You have to watch your dress code. You have to watch how you behave in prisons."

But Mr. Kaye says it is a worthy effort. He says the project is the cause of more good than trouble.

“The advantages far outweigh any of these disadvantages because we’re (are) able to get so much more done for ourselves in the mission that we're trying to accomplish."

Inmates who are part of the program make very little money for their work. The pay in the Washington state area is less than a dollar an hour. And the gardening work can sometimes be boring and repetitive.

But these difficulties do not seem to trouble inmate Joseph Njonge. He says he requested a move to Stafford Creek prison because he hoped to work in the conservation nursery. Many inmates seek the nursery jobs.

Inmate Joseph Njonge at work in the Stafford Creek Corrections Center conservation nursery. (Tom Banse/VOA)

Inmate Joseph Njonge at work in the Stafford Creek Corrections Center conservation nursery. (Tom Banse/VOA)

"It's hard to get into the program, but when you get into the program, what they teach you is something that you probably won't get somewhere else. You know, ‘cause (because) most of the seeds they are having us grow are endangered - plants you won't find anywhere else in the U.S. except here."

Mr. Njonge is a Kenyan native. He is serving 16 years in prison for murder. The U.S. could return him to Kenya once he is freed. Mr. Njonge hopes his new skills will help him get a job instead. He would like to continue working to protect the environment after his release, wherever he goes.

"Dolly" waits for her handler to return from lunch. This rescued shelter dog graduated from a training program at the Stafford Creek prison and has since been adopted. (Tom Banse/VOA)

"Dolly" waits for her handler to return from lunch. This rescued shelter dog graduated from a training program at the Stafford Creek prison and has since been adopted. (Tom Banse/VOA)

The Washington state prison environmental science program has expanded in many directions. At this prison, inmates also train ownerless dogs to make them more appealing for adoption. Other prisoners are fish farming. They grow a warm-water fish called tilapia in solar-heated tanks. Still more inmates fix bicycles and wheelchairs for the needy.

I’m Anna Matteo.

Tom Banse reported this story from Washington state. Anna Matteo wrote it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Word in This Story

inmate – n. a person who is kept in a prison or mental hospital

metal detector – n. an electronic device that gives an audible or other signal when it is close to metal, used, for example, to search for buried objects or to detect hidden weapons.

fickle – adj. changing often

nursery n. a place where plants (such as trees or shrubs) are grown and sold

preconceive – v. to form (as an opinion) prior to actual knowledge or experience <preconceived notion is a set phrase>

challenge – v. to say or show that (something) may not be true, correct, or legal

fertile – adj. producing many plants or crops : able to support the growth of many plants

boring – adj. dull and uninteresting

A pun is a play on words. In this article, there are several puns. If you find them, write them in the comments sections or simply share your opinion of this story.

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