Washington State Prison Program Teaches Inmates 'Green-Collar' Job Skills

The program empowers inmates by enlisting their help to rescue endangered species and conduct ecological research.
The Sustainable Prisons Project educates inmates to take part in ecological conservation and study. (Photo: The Sustainable Prisons Project)
Sep 30, 2012· 1 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

The Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) isn’t your average prison outreach program. Instead of teaching inmates simple job skills, SPP allows them to participate in a host of science-based projects and educational initiatives like saving an endangered species or conducting ecological research, all in the name of personal empowerment, The New York Times reports.

According to the SPP website, the program is a partnership between the Washington State Department of Corrections and Evergreen State College.

Since its inception, SPP has launched a variety of ecology-based programs with inmates. They include the study and breeding of the endangered Oregon spotted frog, the cultivation of sustainable replacements for forest moss, and the preservation of the checker-spot butterfly species as part of what turned out to be a large published study that listed all the participating inmates as contributors.

The program’s goal is to create an intellectually stimulating environment that allows prisoners to think collaboratively with each other, as well as with the program’s participating scientists, college students and even prison administrators.

But SPP isn’t about charity as much as it is about challenge. In order to gain entrance into the program, inmates have to compete with others in the application process, and once admitted, they must keep a spotless disciplinary record or risk being dismissed.

The Huffington Post reports that the program’s effectiveness can be measured in graduating inmates’ low recidivism rates. In Mission Creek Prison, 78 prisoners were involved with SPP and 18 have been released, of which none have returned to prison, and one-third are employed.

Professor Carri LeRoy of Evergreen State College in Olympia and the co-director of SPP explained to the Times that part of what makes the program so effective is the shift in perspective it can give inmates. She explains that watching animals or plants grow gives them the sense that change does happen. “This image of transformation, I think, allows them maybe to understand their own transformation.”

That seems to be true. When Mat Henson came to Cedar Creek Corrections Center, he was another inmate convicted of robbery and assault. Since participating in SPP, he's worked with biologists to breed 250 endangered frogs and is now helping to write a scientific curriculum for similar programs.

When asked what he wants to do upon his release in 2014, he told the Times, “Bioengineering.”

What other industries do you think could benefit by training prison inmates? Let us know in the Comments.