Collaborating with the incarcerated in ecological restoration, education, and sustainability

By Nalini Nadkarni, professor at the University of Utah and ESA’s vice president for Education and Human Resources; Tom Kaye, executive director and senior ecologist at the Institute of Applied Ecology; Chad Naugle, sustainability program manager at the Oregon Department of Corrections; Debbie Rutt, adjunct faculty member at Portland State University and volunteer at the Coffee Creek Corrections Facility, Kelli Bush, Sustainability in Prisons program manager at The Evergreen State College; and Joslyn Trivett , Sustainability in Prisons Program education and outreach manager at The Evergreen State College.

In August 2017, Nadkarni hosted a Diversity Luncheon Program at the society’s Annual Meeting in Portland on “Diversifying partnerships in sustainability and ecological restoration: collaborations with the incarcerated.” The panel drew some critical attention for discussion of collaborations within the U.S. prison system, and sustainability programs that employ incarcerated people. Some audience members expressed concern that sustainability is incompatible with prison systems and inmate labor. In this commentary, Nadkarni and colleagues give context to efforts to making nature and science education available to incarcerated people, and to increase the inclusivity of people and human diversity in the practice and discipline of ecology. The opinions expressed in this guest commentary are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Ecological Society of America.


An inmate at Stafford Creek Corrections Center and conservation biologist with The Nature Conservancy together grow rare prairie plants for an ecological restoration project in western Washington. Credit, Sustainability in Prisons Project.

An inmate at Stafford Creek Corrections Center and conservation biologist with The Nature Conservancy together grow rare prairie plants for an ecological restoration project in western Washington State. Credit, Sustainability in Prisons Project.


In the last two decades, a growing number of ecologists and conservationists have worked to alleviate some of the negative aspects of corrections by providing inmates with science education and access to conservation and sustainability efforts. This is one means of simultaneously alleviating the human costs of incarceration and the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning of our planet.

Often, positions to participate in these activities within corrections institutions are highly coveted. They are not used as a reward, and withdrawal from participation is not used as a threat or punishment. Activities are designed to accommodate a wide range of inmate capacity and experience. The Institutional Review Boards (IRB) of participating academic and corrections institutions provide oversight for work and other activities of incarcerated participants (which are defined as “vulnerable” populations), including proscribed informed consent, de-identification of information, and review of protocols and evaluation instruments. These practices are regularly reviewed by the IRBs, by panels that include at least one member who is an expert on limiting risk to the incarcerated. Results have been published in peer-reviewed ecological, social science, and corrections journals, to build evidenced-based protocols.

We are deeply aware that mass incarceration has pervasive and terrible human, economic, social, and spiritual costs, and is fraught with contradictions, power inequities, and injustices (UNESCO 2002). There are many different approaches that can be taken to ameliorate this situation. Some people choose to work in criminal justice reform and corrections policy. Others choose to make changes by working as staff, administrators, and officers within the corrections industry. Still others have advocated abolishing prisons altogether.

From the start, we have recognized the integral humanity of incarcerated people and—as we would want for any population—we want for them to have opportunities for engaging and meaningful pursuits, and to create a more humane and therapeutic environment. Critique and formal evaluation of the programs has led to valuable refinement and clarification of the programming, and increasing accountability by and to all parties involved. Similarly, feedback from incarcerated individuals has informed program changes at every level.  Considering and responding to criticism is central to the model. Although we acknowledge that incarceration severely limits the choices of the people in custody, the incarcerated participants in these programs are selecting science and sustainability activities above other options.

In the 15-year history of programs that bring science education and conservation projects to the incarcerated, we have at times met with objections from advocates who do not approve of collaboration with any correctional institution. We understand that these are well intentioned. We also understand that they arise from the deep sense of injustice that the practice of mass incarceration evokes. We share that sense of injustice. The programs to involve the incarcerated in nature, education, and conservation are in response to both the need to engage all people in restoring damage to our environment and the need to work toward mitigating the social injustices of incarceration.

Over two million Americans are incarcerated in state and federal prisons, at an annual cost of $63.4 billion. Since the 1970s, the rate of incarceration has increased 500%.  Each year, 650,000 people are released, and over 55% of these will reenter prisons within three years of release. Over 60% of former inmates remain jobless a year after their release (NRC 2014). Minorities are highly disproportionately represented in incarcerated populations. Educational opportunities and contact with nature are minimal (BJS 2014).

History of programs: Nadkarni and her colleagues began providing access to science education and conservation activities in Washington State in 2003, beginning with a single minimum security state prison. They involved inmates in a restoration citizen science project to cultivate slow-growing mosses for the horticulture trade to reduce wild-collecting of mosses from old-growth forests. This led to providing regular lectures by academic and agency scientists about conservation and science, which in turn led to collaborations with conservation groups that provided training and opportunities for inmates to become directly involved ecological restoration projects.

The project grew into the Sustainability in Prisons Project, a collaboration of The Evergreen State College and Washington State Department of Corrections. Ecologists helped corrections staff initiate and maintain sustainability projects such as recycling, gardening, composting, energy conservation, and water catchment. Overall, these activities provided male and female adult inmates in minimum and medium security levels with science education, job skills training, and collaborative interactions with people outside the prisons (conservation scientists and practitioners, undergraduate and graduate students, and education professionals) over extended periods of time.

In 2013, supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, a national conference was held to assist other academic, corrections, and conservation groups to create similar programs in other states.  These projects led to sustained relationships between scientists and corrections institutions that have enabled systemic changes in attitudes and activities surrounding sustainability, education, ecological restoration, and perceptions of inmates (Ulrich & Nadkarni (2009).

Connections with incarcerated people: We recognize the value of environmental programs for incarcerated participants, for the benefits it offers to the participants, and for the enrichment they offer to science and the environmental movement. In addition to education and job skills (to be described below), the programs can offer awareness of and access to environmental justice, a topic that is critical to empowering the marginalized communities that have borne the brunt of environmental problems and injustices (Agveman & Evans 2003). Through their interest and involvement, the environmental movement gains much-needed diversity of experience, ideas, and ownership: science and ecology gain new students and advocates, and the disciplines become more relevant and adapted to contemporary inquiry and challenges.

Incarcerated participants regularly attest to these program benefits. We regularly hear from program participants and learn from our assessment instruments that they are relieved to have access to our programs; without that assurance, we would discontinue them. Their formal and informal feedback on the programs is a crucial element of program evaluation and improvement.

At the same time, we realize that any act in prison is suspect to coercion, and have sought input from formerly incarcerated participants. Previously incarcerated individuals have no obligation—social or legal—to contact program partners, and thus the feedback has been limited to anecdotal accounts and one qualitative study of enduring impacts to program participants’ environmental identity. In these post-incarceration interactions, we have heard positive accounts similar to those shared during incarceration (Passarelli 2017).

Cedar Creek Corrections Center, inmates learn to rear the state-listed Oregon Spotted Frog in collaboration with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. Credit, Sustainability in Prisons Project.

At Cedar Creek Corrections Center, inmates learn to rear the state-listed Oregon Spotted Frog in collaboration with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. Credit, Sustainability in Prisons Project.

Connections to conservation and ecological restoration: Project organizers have created partnerships with corrections staff and conservation researchers and practitioners to directly involve incarcerated people in rearing, caring for, and better understanding rare and endangered plant and animal species. The biota they raise inside prisons are then placed in protected wildlands by conservation professionals as part of ongoing regional ecological restoration efforts. Over 20 prisons have helped protect biota such as the Oregon Spotted Frog, the Taylor Checkerspot Butterfly, the Least Chub (a fish), prairie plants, sage grouse, native bulrushes, and the American Kestral. Lectures and workshops on the biota and on the rationale for conserving biodiversity accompany these activities.

Connections to sustainability of energy and materials: Many projects promote sustainable living  e.g., installation and maintenance of organic gardens, composting of kitchen waste, bee-keeping, aquaponics, recycling trash and clothing, conservation of energy, and tracking of energy and materials use. The National Audubon Society has awarded support to established prison volunteers involved with gardening programs. None of these activities could have been sustained by people ‘outside” of the institutions (i.e., faculty and conservation professionals), but rather have required the involvement, trust, communication with corrections staff who work in facilities, grounds, maintenance, security, and accounting. These initiatives are not merely resource-saving, they are part of an imperative culture shift in prisons and throughout our society.

Connections to Education:  Education is the primary focus of programs in corrections facilities. Education for the incarcerated has long been considered a means of mitigating or even ending the negative cycle of incarceration and its ill effects. In 2013, the Bureau of Justice Administration commissioned a study on the costs and benefits of corrections education (Davis et al. 2013). This meta-analysis of thousands of studies provided unassailable documentation that provision of education of any kind (higher education, high school, GED, vocational, informal) reduced the probability of recidivism by 13% and increased the probability of post-release employment by 13%.

Since 2005, our programs have provided science and sustainability education. These consist of monthly science lectures with accompanying handouts in eight prisons (over 480 lectures, touching over 23,000 inmates). The efficacy of lectures has been evaluated via pre- and post-lecture surveys that assess changes in knowledge content, attitudes about science and scientists, and individuals’ own self-identity with respect to science learning. Quantitative results demonstrate that exposure to even a few lectures can enhance all of these factors (Nadkarni & Morris 2017).

Connections through nature imagery: For inmates in solitary confinement, where security constraints prevent science lectures or the presence of biota, we have provided nature videos in inmates’ exercise rooms, which helps reconnect inmates in this extremely nature-deprived environment to the therapeutic benefits of nature imagery. It has helped to diffuse agitation, reduce violence, and raise interest in nature and science to populations that have access to neither. In a pilot study in a secured housing cellblock of a Supermax prison in Oregon, this intervention has reduced the number of violent infractions by 26% (and concomitant injury to inmates and staff), and contributed to reduction of stress and anxiety in inmates (Nadkarni et al. 2017).

Inmates apply techniques of rare plant cultivation for prairie plant restoration project in Stafford Creek Correction Center, western Washington. Credit, Sustainability in Prisons Project.

Inmates apply techniques of rare plant cultivation for prairie plant restoration project in Stafford Creek Correction Center, western Washington. Credit, Sustainability in Prisons Project.

Connections to human rights and social and environmental justice: These activities have value for and social and environmental justice. The UN Council on Human Rights (2009) articulated that healthy environments are closely tied to the enjoyment of human rights. Worldwide, people experience adverse effects from environmental degradation: lack of water, fisheries depletion, and deforestation. Indigenous peoples suffer directly from damage to the ecosystems that they rely upon. Thus, work to restore environments to health, and to include all people — including the incarcerated—in those efforts, is consistent with this critical human right, and lies at the core of both social justice and environmental justice.

In 2015, the work to bring science education and conservation projects to the incarcerated was recognized by a major national award in social and environmental justice, the William Julius Wilson Award for the Advancement of Social Justice. This award honors individuals who promote social inclusiveness and diversity in social policies and strive to reduce joblessness. It was named for William Julius Wilson (WJW), an African-American sociologist who is recognized as one of the nation’s most accomplished and looked-to analysts of race, inequality, and poverty. Through his scholarship, he has profoundly influenced public discussions of social inclusiveness, poverty and joblessness, and helped shape social policies around these critical issues.

The Award recognizes individuals and the actions they carry out that better address these complex challenges. WJW Award winners included Robert J. Sampson, one of the nation’s top scholars in studies of urban inequality, crime, social structures and civic engagement (2013), who presented on poverty, crime and social structures of American cities and neighborhoods. In 2017, Elijah Anderson, one of the nation’s leading urban ethnographers, was honored for his many books, including Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. In 2015, Nadkarni was awarded the William Julius Wilson Award for the Advancement of Social Justice in recognition of her work to promote social inclusiveness of incarcerated people and to reduce post-prison joblessness and recidivism.

Minorities disproportionately represent inmate populations. By raising awareness while inmates who are minorities are incarcerated about opportunities that exist for them inside prison and when they are released from prison, we provide the potential to increase participation from these groups in the future, which can lead to greater inclusiveness in our discipline of ecology.

Relationships with corrections institutions: This work by necessity has required the development of long-term relationships with corrections administrators, staff, and officers. These include Secretaries of state prison systems, behavioral health staff, corrections policymakers, and line officers. These relationships have not only been valuable for implementation of projects, but also to create shifts in attitudes about the values of education, conservation, sustainability, and improved human interactions inside prisons, which in turn makes for small but lasting and systemic changes in the system of mass incarceration.

Dissemination of this approach: This project has spread to over 30 prisons and jails in nine states and is funded (financially and with in-kind support) by state Departments of Corrections, the National Science Foundation (Advancing Informal STEM Learning Program), private donors, and foundations. Reports have appeared in scientific journals (including Science and ESA’s Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment), newspapers, and mainstream media (CNN, MSNBC, Washington Post, New York Times, as well as corrections journals (Corrections Today) [see websites below].

Connections to policy: This is an auspicious time for scientists to contribute to criminal justice reform. For federal prisons, The Second Chance Act (SCA, 2008) was passed with bipartisan backing to support state, local, and tribal governments to reduce recidivism and improve outcomes for people returning from corrections facilities. This authorized federal grants for programs to improve the reentry by providing support for housing, education, employment, family relationships, substance abuse, and mental health treatment. Many states are now passing comprehensive criminal justice reform bills (e.g., the Utah House passed Bill 348 to create comprehensive criminal justice reform legislation, and provides funds mental health programs and directives for community supervision).

Compensation: Nearly all corrections systems encourage or require inmates to carry out some sort of work, and they provide a standard rate of pay. Although the rate of pay is low, it is not possible to exceed these established rates to work within the prison system. In contrast to typical inmate jobs (kitchen work, cleaning, laundry), our opportunities include contact with scientists and educators, acquisition of job and communications skills, learning animal and plant culture techniques, interacting with living things, exposure to the outdoors, and a sense of pride in participating in academic and conservation efforts. Our assessment results document that from the inmate standpoint, the “opportunity to contribute to something bigger than oneself”, and “to improve the health of the Earth even while incarcerated” are cited as the most important motivations for their participation, with financial rewards ranking far below those reasons.

Panel Diversity: A concern was raised for inadequate diversity of races/cultures/perspectives among the panelists.  Of the four people involved in the panel, two are female (50%), and one is an Asian American (25%). Although it may not have been apparent by observing the panel members, at least one member is LGBT+ and at least one member sustains severe health issues that have been considered disabling to his/her employer.  It is important that observers do not make judgments about the diversity of race, identify, culture, and ability without being sufficiently informed.

The composition of the panel, however, has little to do with the personal background of presenters. The reason for presenting it in the milieu of the Diversity Luncheon is because the central precept of diversity relates not only to diversity of race, socioeconomic status, and ability, but also to diversity of life perspectives, approaches, ways of knowing, and contributions that can and should be incorporated into the discipline of ecology and ecological restoration. One group that includes BOTH types of diversity is the incarcerated. Panel presenters wished to share their experiences with luncheon attendees so that they might open their minds and consider approaching and working with groups that most ecologists do not encounter.

Summary: The corrections industry is rife with many kinds of injustice, waste of energy and materials, and disregard for humans dignity and potential. However, the current system exists, and affects nearly 2% of the U,S. population. Through collaborations, ecologists have been successful in providing portals to science education at no cost to inmates. They have also provided opportunities for inmates to contribute to honorable and important work that protects biodiversity and natural resources, and to shift their own identities from powerlessness to being contributory inside and outside of corrections institutions. These projects have helped reduce the “them versus us” mentality that too often exemplifies the incarcerated versus non-incarcerated. This work is ripe for contributions from all types of educators, ecologists, and especially those who are concerned with and knowledgeable about the scholarship and practice of social and environmental justice. Such participation is deeply and respectfully welcomed.



  • Agyeman, J. and Evans, J. 2003.Toward Just Sustainability in Urban Communities: Building Equity Rights with Sustainable Solutions,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 590: 35–53.
  • Davis LM et al. 2013. Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education: A Meta-Analysis of Programs that Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.
  • Nadkarni, N. and J. Morris. (In press). Informal science education for a novel public audience: Baseline attitudes and impacts of science lectures on content knowledge and perceived value of science among incarcerated populations. PLOSOne. In press.
  • Nadkarni, N., L. Schnacker, P. Hasbach, T. Thys, and E. Gaines. 2017. From orange to blue: how nature imagery affects inmates in the “Blue Room”. Corrections Today 79:36-41.
  • Nadkarni, N., P. Hasbach, T. Thys, E. Gaines, and L. Schnacker. In Press. Impacts of nature imagery on people in severely nature-deprived environments. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
  • National Research Council. 2014. The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
  • Passarelli, E. 2017. Becoming Environmentalists: Previously incarcerated individuals’ experiences with science and sustainability programs in prison. MES Thesis, The Evergreen State College, Olympia..
  • Ulrich. C. and N. M. Nadkarni. 2009. Sustainability research in enforced residential institutions: collaborations of ecologists and prisoners. Environment, Development, and Sustainability 11:815.-825.
  • United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), UNESCO World Report: Investing in Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue (Paris: 2009)
  • United Nations Council on Human RIghts Resolution 2009. Resolution 7/23 of March 2008 and resolution 10/4 of March 2009.
  • United States Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). 2014. Correctional Populations in the United States. Washington, D.C.


Websites of interest:

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