Prison Photography always looks to visual sources that represent incarcerated peoples from a different perspective. Some of the best opportunities to do this is with images of prisoners employing their time in job placements, self-growth programmes and/or restorative justice & community education projects.
The Prison Moss Project, part of the Washington Department of Corrections‘ sustainability efforts uses prisoners time for the benefit of multiple causes. The project studies the growth of different mosses, cultivates the fastest growing species and sells them commercially as an alternative to mosses stripped from America’s temperate rain forests. Harvested mosses constitute a $265 million/year business. 90% of mosses come from Pacific Northwest forests. The majority of mosses are used for short lived floral-arrangement. Moss can take between 20 to 40 years to regrow even a small patch of a few square feet.
The beauty of this model based on simple scientific observation and applied methods is that it is replicable the world over. And, the business that results makes sense too.
So, the benefits? First and foremost, the inmates at Cedar Creek, a minimum security facility in the rural southwest of Washington enjoy daily active learning. Prison staff have described the facility as one without idle time among its inmate population. Engaging the bodies and minds of frequently docile populations is the first step in combating recidivism.
Concurrently, tax-payers (economically-efficient prisons), tourists (untouched old growth forests) and global citizens (robust ecological legacies) all benefit too. Finally, all this pales in comparison to the rewards for the Pacific Northwest old growth forests, which in future will not suffer unsustainable tree-stripping and moss harvesting.
How did all this start? Two convergent forces came together. The first was a general move by the Washington Department of Corrections to improve its carbon footprint, sustainability and opportunities for its inmates. This involved composting, recycling, organic farming, beekeeping at selected facilities. This green awakening fell into step with Nalini Nadkarni‘s need for extended and immediate research into moss varietal growth patterns.
Nadkarni has been called the “Queen of the Forest Canopies”. I am not one for personality worship, but let’s just say her work is socially – as well as environmentally – responsible, she knows how to work media channels, her message is imperative and the Evergreen State College in Olympia is very lucky to have her on faculty. She co-founded the Research Ambassador Program at Evergreen, which seeks to combine academic and non-academic practitioners to widen the reach of environmental dialogue and deliver relevant forms of communication to different groups; from inner city youth, to business CEOs.
It’s all about respectful communication, and it’s all for the benefit of our environmental futures.
The media coverage of this programme has often focused on the story of a young inmate who, since release, secured a biochemistry PhD full ride scholarship at the University of Nevada, Reno. He was imprisoned after accidentally killing his friend with his sports rifle in his student apartment. Four years later, he has continued the exceptional academic track he seemed destined to follow. It is a testament to the Washington Department of Corrections and Nalini Nadkarni (his mentor during time served) that his life has been delayed rather than destroyed.
But, he surely is an atypical case and it is a case that obscures the facts about the sustainable projects in operation at Cedar Creek. Not every inmate is a PhD candidate, but every inmate is a willing recipient of education – especially environmental education which, in many cases, is totally novel. Environmental education carries an almost redemptive message in that your actions can directly benefit everyone in modest but crucial ways. Actions based upon this new learning can be very therapeutic. Responsibility for oneself and other human beings is not separate from responsibility for our shared environment.
I have discussed sustainability efforts in California’s prison system before. In closing I’d like to repeat the sentiments of Cedar Creek superintendents who, in attempts to convince the public of the utility of this program, talk of the direct reduction in operating costs at the facility. If commentators such as myself want to espouse the rehabilitative value also then so be it. Doubters now have firm fiscal, quantitative evidence – in addition to qualitative inmate testimonies – to shape their support for sustainability programmes in prisons. WDC senior staff are adamant Cedar Creek is the correctional model to follow in the 21st century.
There are many resources out there on the Prison Moss Project and Nalini Nadkarni‘s ongoing evangelism. I personally would recommend in this order … Nalini Nadkarni’s recent TED presentation about the opportunities for academic & non-academic communities to unite for greater good; this extended video from KCTS (9 minutes); this interview with Nadkarni; a recent Mother Jones summary of her projects and two media reports (1), (2).