States seek savings with sustainability programs in prisons

Kirk Johnson / New York Times News Service /

LITTLEROCK, Wash. — The birdman of Alcatraz became famous. But the frogmen of Cedar Creek are still anonymous beyond the tiny cult world of amphibian science. For now, they say.

Mat Henson, 25, serving a 4 1⁄2-year sentence for robbery and assault, and his research partner, Taylor Davis, 29, who landed in the Cedar Creek Corrections Center here in central Washington for stealing cars, raised about 250 Oregon spotted frogs in the prison yard this summer.

Working with biologists, Henson is helping write a scientific curriculum for other frog-raisers, in prison or out. A previous inmate in the program, released some years ago, is finishing his Ph.D. in molecular biology.

When asked about his plans after he is released from prison in 2014, Henson paused only a moment. “Bioengineering,” he said.

The state program that connected the dots — or rather the felons and the frogs — is called Sustainability in Prisons. Nationally, it is unique in enlisting inmates to help rescue imperiled species like the Oregon spotted frog, which is threatened across much of its range. Who really gets saved, though, is an open question.

“A prison, when you stop to think about it, is a place that should be able to contribute beyond just locking people up,” said Dan Pacholke, the Washington state director of prisons, who helped found the project in 2004 when he was superintendent at Cedar Creek, a minimum-security 500-bed prison. He still jointly directs the project from his office in the capital, Olympia.

The program’s broader goal of bringing nature and sustainable practices to prisons is echoed across the nation as states seek ways to run prisons more cost-effectively.

Utilitarian practicality led Wisconsin in 2008 to begin having inmates grow much of their own food. And federal energy rules are pushing the goal of zero-net energy use in federal prisons by 2030.

Indiana and Massachusetts have become aggressive in reducing energy and water consumption and waste in their prisons, and tough renewable energy mandates in California are pushing alternative generation and conservation at prisons there, said Paul Sheldon, a senior adviser at Natural Capitalism Solutions, a Colorado-based nonprofit that works with government agencies and companies on sustainability issues.

But Washington state’s overlay of science — offenders in four state prisons work on projects involving the spotted frogs (Rana pretiosa) wild prairie grasses and butterflies — is also addressing a budget gap in habitat restoration and ecology.

The prisoners, who trained with a state biologist but also learned from one another, must compete to enter the program and maintain a record of perfect behavior to stay in it. They are paid 42 cents an hour, standard prison wages, for 10-hour workdays that involve sometimes tedious tasks like monitoring the frogs’ water temperature or harvesting the hundreds of crickets grown for frog food — something that even an oppressed graduate student might avoid at real wages.

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