Cultivating life behind bars

Programs that combine recycling, clean energy and inmate training are worth the time it takes to watch them grow

   The project started small. In 2008 Stafford Creek partnered with Evergreen State College to do plant restoration projects and growing forums. After some success, program staff and offenders began to buy-in. "Evergreen wanted to get a contract to see if they could get a foot in the door of the prison," recalls Washington State Department of Corrections Superintendant Pat Glebe. "They wanted to implement some ideas." Glebe introduced Evergreen staff and students with SCCC plant managers Michael Tupper and Chris Idso. One of their first joint assignments was plant restoration at an army base in Fort Lewis. "They wanted to grow prairie grass in the prairie and really couldn't find anybody to do it," recalls Glebe. "It's pretty monotonous work -- putting the little seed in the tube. And with the offender population and greenhouses we had ... it was a perfect fit."

   According to Idso, the work is well-received. "We've always had a garden crew and a grounds maintenance offender crew, and it's always been one they've enjoyed being a part of, because they're outside most of the time. But this project gives them something a lot more global to put their hands on ... something that's got more meaning. That's what these guys are hungry for."

   Only two to three people are paid under the contract between Washington State DOC and Evergreen College and the nature conservancy. The majority of individuals running the show are volunteers and graduate students, some of whom are working a thesis or class project. The college does a regular lecture series where a guest comes and talks about a sustainability topic, then touches base weekly to see how the project's coming along.

Treasure from trash

   Composting is the current buzzword at Stafford Creek. The corrections center started separating its food waste several years ago and sent it to a separate facility that did static pile composting. Based on that arrangement, Idso says the center was able to prove it could do the same thing themselves -- and pay for it in seven to eight years. Soon after, Stafford Creek received funding to build an in-vessel composting center onsite to process food waste.

   Stafford Creek facilitators find ways to incorporate dozens of sustainability practices into their everyday routine. Whether it's using old-fashioned push lawn mowers or cultivating organic gardens -- as many as they're allowed to put in -- "nine times out of 10 if you can take a process or a system and make it more sustainable, it's going to save money," says Idso, who's seen financial savings from things like re-lamping the whole facility from T8 to T5 bulbs and changing out heating units.

   Specifically, SCCC has managed to save between $40,000 to $50,000 a year by eliminating 80 percent of their garbage bag usage, thanks to a new garbage sorting center. "Initially we were producing about 1,200 tons of trash annually," says Plant Manager Michael Tupper. "We've been able to reduce 800 tons (500 food and 300 trash) that we were sending to the landfill at about $167 a ton, and we reduced that to about 300 tons a year. With a $100,000 investment, we're looking at about $100,000 to $150,000 in savings annually."

   In terms of recycling, Tupper adds it reduces the facility's carbon footprint as well as cuts down on what it sends to the landfill. "We don't generate a lot of money in what we recycle, but if we don't have to pay to haul it to a landfill, then we're saving money for the facilities."

Keeping with protocol

   Adding more programs to prisons, especially those that give offenders more free license around facilities, may seem daunting to corrections staff. Glebe says any time a prison implements something on this scale it takes a bit of coordination. At Stafford Creek, a high-security prison with 2,000 beds and 600 staff, inmates range from having a few days left to serve to the rest of their lives. It's important, then, to address the challenges of moving offenders, maintaining supervision and having a good screening process in place.

   But starting up recycling programs can benefit security, too. Says Tupper: "This has become a better facility because ... by looking at what we have in our trash we've been able to identify practices and procedures we can correct; when we see pharmaceuticals, etc., go through we can eliminate them and take a look at our process."

   To learn better recycling, Idso and Tupper brought in the local state ecology department to perform a garbage sort. "We took one days' worth of garbage and they went through it with 55-gallon garbage cans and showed us how to sort, gave us tips on where we can recycle, and things like that," says Idso. He adds there will always be a group of naysayers, but by working at a small level and slowly implementing change, and then justifying it using the amount of money saved, number of items recycled, and variety of items identified and removed from the trash; pretty soon a lot of people are convinced. "It's very beneficial to our security. But on the other side, there are some things we need to pay attention to -- things we don't want our offenders involved in," says Tupper. "It goes both ways."

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