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Inmate Jeff Curbow, 40, says he improved a watering system for the moss after others built a special hut for it at Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Littlerock, Thurston County. © Ken Lambert for The Seattle Times.

Inmate Jeff Curbow, 40, says he improved a watering system for the moss after others built a special hut for it at Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Littlerock, Thurston County. Credit: Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times.

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.

A Cedar Creek inmate and researcher in the Prison Moss Project studies mosses. Credit: Nalini Nadkarni

A Cedar Creek inmate and researcher in the Prison Moss Project studies mosses. Credit: Nalini Nadkarni of Evergreen State College

The Prison Moss Project, part of the Washington Department of Correctionssustainability 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.

A Cedar Creek inmate and researcher in the Moss-in-Prisons project tends the garden. Credit: Nalini Nadkarni

A Cedar Creek inmate and researcher in the Moss-in-Prisons project tends the garden. Credit: Nalini Nadkarni

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.

A Cedar Creek inmate and researcher in the Prison Moss Project in the purpose built greenhouses. Credit: Nalini Nadkarni of Evergreen State College

A Cedar Creek inmate and researcher in the Prison Moss Project in the purpose built greenhouses. Credit: Nalini Nadkarni

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.

Daniel Travatte, 36, suits up to check on the Italian honey bees he cares for at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in rural southwest, Wash. on Friday, Oct. 17, 2008. The bees are part of a program to help the prison be more environmentally green. Credit: John Froschauer/AP

Daniel Travatte, 36, suits up to check on the Italian honey bees he cares for at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in rural southwest, Wash. on Friday, Oct. 17, 2008. The bees are part of a program to help the prison be more environmentally green. Credit: John Froschauer/AP

Inmate, Daniel Travatte, tends the Italian honey bees he cares for at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in rural southwest, WA Credit: John Froschauer/AP

Inmate, Daniel Travatte, tends the Italian honey bees he cares for at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in rural southwest, WA. Credit: John Froschauer/AP

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.

Inmates Robert Day (left) and Brian Deboer (right) check on plants in one of the organic gardens at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in rural southwest, Washington, on Friday. The minimum-security prison has adopted many environmental and cost saving practices. Credit: AP/John Froschauer

Inmates Robert Day (left) and Brian Deboer (right) check on plants in one of the organic gardens at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in rural southwest, Washington, on Friday. The minimum-security prison has adopted many environmental and cost saving practices. Credit: John Froschauer/AP

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.

Inmate Robert Knowles pitches plant stalks into a compost pile Oct. 17 at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in rural southwest Washington. The minimum-security prison has adopted many environmental and cost-saving practices. Credit: John Froschauer/AP Photo.

Inmate Robert Knowles pitches plant stalks into a compost pile Oct. 17 at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in rural southwest Washington. The minimum-security prison has adopted many environmental and cost-saving practices. Credit: John Froschauer/AP

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).

Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

During the warm-ups, Ms. Barr asked the crew, "How cold does it have to be to get hypothermia? Only 50 degrees. But if you're cold you're probably not working hard enough." Photo: Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Sunday’s depressing article in the  New York Times detailed the political battle in Sacramento to keep hold of California Conservation Corps (CCC) through this period of recession. Gov. Schwarzenegger wants to cut the program to eat into the $45billion deficit California currently bears. Interestingly, Jerry Brown – who initiated the program as Governor in 1976 – is one of the leading voices to save the CCC from the chop.

The Corps. offers low paid work, but work nonetheless, to youth who for whatever reason do not fit the typical work history. Consider not the gaps in your work history, but work histories in your gap! This is a program that considers the individual and not the CV first – which is truly noble these days. The Corps is an employment gateway and an opportunity for young persons to complete unquestionably worthwhile work.

California’s program is modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put three million young, unemployed men to work from 1933 to 1942. Last year, I may have argued that the model was out of date, but given recent twitter comparing today with the Great Depression, I wouldn’t now question programs indebted to good ol’ fashioned graft. Indeed for many work crew, this is one of the few structures of employment that makes any sense.

Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Jason Prue, 21, said he was living as a drifter in an old Dodge Intrepid with a dog named Buddy before joining the corps. "I decided I needed to do something, to find a job I loved." Photo: Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

A California Conservation Corps crew repaired trails in Mount Tamalpais State Park. The corps employs 1,300 young adults. Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

A California Conservation Corps crew repaired trails in Mount Tamalpais State Park. The corps employs 1,300 young adults. Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

While reading this article in the hairdressers, I was surprised to see Van Jones’ name once again. I have mentioned his previous work with incarcerated youth and now with sustainable energy policy. He sees the necessary link between these two issues and calls for former prisons, alienated youth, new unemployed and urban poor all to jump on to Obama’s “green economy employment juggernaut”.

“To cut off the opportunity for disadvantaged kids to get their feet on the first rung of the ladder to future green careers is criminal,” said Van Jones, author of the best-selling “Green Collar Economy” and founding president of the Oakland-based nonprofit agency Green for All.

Mr. Jones said the California program was the prototype for at least 13 similar corps in other states and an inspiration for conservation work programs being considered by the Obama administration.

“How can you be a green governor and be taking the tools to green the state out of the hands of young people?” Mr. Jones said.

That Schwarzenegger might gut the corps even as President Obama’s new administration evokes themes of public works, national service and overcoming odds galls some youth advocates, who say the program serves as a model for the type of “green collar” jobs promised by the Congressional stimulus package.

Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Members of the corps cleaned their breakfast dishes in the dark before going out to repair trails and build a wheelchair-accessible trail in Mount Tamalpais State Park in Marin County. Photo: Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Edward Alvarez, 18, packing the group's lunches for the day. Mr. Alvarez comes from a long line of corps members. His father fought fires with the California Conservation Corps in the 1980s and his great-grandfather served in the Civilian Conservation Corps established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Photo: Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

Does this effort to eradicate the CCC in order to save $34million/year suggest we have become too over ambitious? Are we realistic with the number and type of programs Obama’s stimulus package may bring? Is it really the “Christmas Tree” the Republican’s describe? How are we to design, support and administer a new movement in green jobs and environmental agri-service if we can’t maintain the simpler, tried-and-tested, restoration based programs?

For more pictures please view the full California Conservation Corps photo essay by Heidi Schumann for the New York Times

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