When prison inmates wield hoes and rakes at Cedar Creek Corrections Center, they’re not digging their way to freedom or working on a chain gang. They’re working on green initiatives that make the prison more sustainable and help with their own rehabilitation. Located in Washington’s Capital Forest, the minimum-security corrections center’s unprecedented green efforts save it money, reduce its ecological footprint and even help spark environmental careers for some prisoners (once they get out). The program’s founding scientist and the prison’s superintendent hope to implement similar initiatives in other prisons. “People here are exposed to sustainability in a way that’s pervasive,” says Dan Pacholke, who championed green efforts while he was prison superintendent from December 2003 to August of last year.

Each month, Cedar Creek composts an average of 2,800 pounds of kitchen waste, which nourishes the 13,000 pounds of organic produce grown each year; low-flow showerheads and toilets and rainwater catchments reduce water usage; there is a zero-waste recycling center; and the light bulbs are energy efficient. These initiatives cut garbage bills by about $500 per month and reduced water usage per inmate from 130 to 100 gallons a day. “Part of what we’re getting at is an overall context that hopefully lends itself to a more successful environment that reduces the likelihood that they’re oriented toward crime,” says Pacholke.

For some prisoners, it seems to be working. Craig Ulrich, an inmate who heads up the composting program, introduced a method of using worms to turn raw materials into rich soils and tweaked the existing compost heap to make it more efficient. Today, he can turn your banana peel into black soil in 45 days. Redirecting organic material like kitchen scraps into the compost rather than down the drain improved wastewater quality so much that the prison scrapped plans to build a $1.3 million treatment plant.

Ulrich recently submitted a research paper about his composting program to a scientific journal and is applying to a biochemistry PhD program, which he hopes to attend once he’s released next summer. Two other former inmates have entered landscaping and horticulture.

“We educate as many people as possible on the program in order to get people to incorporate this type of lifestyle when they get out,” Ulrich says.

As former Cedar Creek interim superintendent Mike Obenland points out, the green program is “just the right thing to do.” 

Story by Anne Casselman. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007