Six women sit on overturned crates tending to seedlings inside a greenhouse in Wilsonville, Oregon. Light filters through the clear plastic roof, and a break in the clouds sends streaks of sunlight over an open end of the structure. Birds call out, interrupting the peaceful scene as the women focus on harvesting leaves from early blue violets planted in rows of black plastic containers. The violet leaves will be used to feed threatened silverspot butterflies. If it were not for the women’s florescent green vests and the bright orange Department of Corrections seal stamped on their jeans, the scene could easily be mistaken for a commercial nursery. As it is, the women are prisoners behind the razor-wire fences surrounding Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, a minimum and medium security prison located on 108 acres in western Oregon, less than 20 miles south of Portland.
“I’ve always loved butterflies, so I wanted to help [keep] the silverspot from becoming extinct,” says Melissa Annis, one of the women plucking leaves. She has been incarcerated at Coffee Creek for 30 months. “Part of this job is learning about plants and butterflies and the whole ecosystem. It has opened my eyes to the environment. It also keeps me focused on positive things. Even when I’m not out here with the plants, I can study materials about my job, so I don’t just focus on being in prison.”
Nearby other prisoners measure and record data, keeping track of the seedlings’ growth. The harvested violet leaves, smaller than the tip of a child’s small fingernail, will be sent to the Oregon Zoo Silverspot Husbandry program, an initiative to bolster populations of the Oregon silverspot butterfly, which is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act (esa). There, zookeepers and volunteers will feed the leaves to the caterpillars between the larvae and pupation phases – the butterfly relies exclusively on the violet leaves during this life stage.
Thanks in part to this project, silverspot butterfly numbers are improving in Oregon. The program began in 2013 as a partnership between the Oregon Department of Corrections, the Oregon Zoo, and the Institute for Applied Ecology (iae), an environmental nonprofit located in Corvallis, Oregon. It has grown to include 50 women who have sown more than 100,000 violets. The violets that don’t go directly to caterpillars at the zoo are transplanted along the Oregon coast where the silverspot lives, and some prisoners are allowed to join planting crews consisting of federal staff, iae staff, and volunteers. The program has been so successful that a second butterfly recovery program for the endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly was established this March at Coffee Creek. Through the Butterfly Recovery Lab, the prisoners rear Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies from larvae to pupae phase. The US Fish and Wildlife Service will collect pupae to be release back in protected habitats two weeks before they hatch into butterflies.
The Coffee Creek programs aren’t the only butterfly recovery projects in Oregon’s prisons. Since 2011, men in Oregon State Correctional Institution (osci), located in Salem, have been growing Kincaid’s lupine and harvesting the seeds to help the Fender’s butterfly, which relies on lupine plants to lay its eggs and as a food source for recently hatched larvae. The seeds harvested by prisoners are used for habitat restoration efforts outside the prison. Both Kincaid’s lupine and Fender’s butterfly are listed under the esa. Recently, osci added golden paintbrush to the program, a species that sustains the Taylor’s checkerspot. Programs like these are not only helping restore habitats and endangered species, they are also helping prisoners find new purpose in life.
Samuel LeMaire, who has been in prison for 32 years, says the osci program has helped him prepare for his release: “I just connected with my family for the first time in 30 years. They have a greenhouse I’m going to help with when I get out next year. I’m scared about getting out, so it’s good to have family connections.”
Encouraged by these initial butterfly programs, Chad Naugle, sustainability programs manager at the Oregon Department of Corrections, began working with the Institute for Applied Ecology’s Executive Director Tom Kaye and Education Coordinator Stacy Moore to expand horticulture programs throughout the state prison system.
Naugle had already seen the benefits of prison horticulture programs and was eager to do more for both the environment and the prisoners. “It is restorative work on a personal level to engage them with nature, and it reduces stress, depression, and anxiety,” he says. “The programs have helped build self-esteem [and] confidence, and have given vocational and soft skills to help these adults in custody with opportunities to be successful and productive citizens when reentering society.”
In 2014, the Oregon Department of Corrections and iae launched a program at Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, Oregon, to help restore the population of the greater sage grouse, a chicken-like bird best known for male’s elaborate mating dances. Greater sage grouse populations have been steadily declining due to the diminishing availability of sagebrush, which the bird depends on for food, protection, and shelter. Concern for the bird has grown in recent years, as has concern that a possible esa listing would adversely impact ranchers and the local economy.
Growing sagebrush is a lengthy process, and the cost prohibits most commercial nurseries from propagating it. Setting up a program within prisons offered a more affordable option – prison wages in Oregon are based on a complicated voucher system that translates into payment well below minimum wage. Naugle worked within corrections to put the program in place while iae secured a grant from the Bureau of Land Management.
“Snake River was the clear choice to start the program,” iae’s Moore says. “The prison already had a gardening project, and there was a strong interest in horticulture programs. It’s also located in an area where sagebrush grows, so the climate and growing conditions were well suited.”
The program officially got underway when Moore began a lecture series at the Snake River facility on sagebrush and the greater sage grouse. “We needed to establish interest among the inmates,” she says. The first few lectures only brought in about 10 men, but as attendees became excited about rescuing the greater sage grouse, word spread and attendance increased to 60 to 70 prisoners.
Kirk Gonterman did not immediately appear to be someone who would be interested in the program. As a young boy, he hunted sage grouse with a bow and arrow, and a piece of land he tried to buy as a young man didn’t work out when a nonprofit filed a lawsuit to prevent building on the property. “I didn’t have much good to say about people trying to save the environment,” Gonterman admits, “but the partnerships going on here changed my thinking. I see it’s important to look at the whole picture so you don’t screw up habitats animals depend on. I didn’t understand the need for cooperation between environmentalists and other parties before, but I now see how the ranchers and blm and the Forest Service all have to work together to save this bird. It feels good to be a part of that.”
By November of 2014, just six months after the program began, 20,000 seedlings were ready to be planted in a post-wildfire habitat in eastern Oregon. A group of prisoners was allowed to accompany blm staff to transplant the sagebrush. It was a bittersweet moment.
“The men become protective of the plants,” Moore says. “They see the plants every day and have a relationship with them. Their observation skills become keen, and they notice every little change as they’re growing. They want to make sure their plants survive once they’re back in nature.”
The program has been so successful that it has served as a pilot project for a network of small sagebrush production nurseries in eleven prisons across six states.
Indeed, across the board, these conservation projects are popular among prisoners, who are required by statute to either work or participate in educational programs while incarcerated in Oregon. In fact, there are more prisoners applying to work in prison sustainability and horticulture projects than there are openings. Prisoners express gratitude for the opportunities their positions afford, including working outdoors, working in smaller groups, learning about the environment, and improved relationships with their family members and prison officers. Many participants take pride in the fact that they are helping threatened species. Some want to continue the work when they are released from prison and appreciate the educational component that will help them find jobs in nurseries or working for environmental groups.
Richard Conn was working in the prison garden when the sagebrush restoration program began at Snake River Correctional Facility. He joined right away. “Keeping an animal off an endangered species list sounded like a good thing to do,” he says. “Growing things helps you cope with things here. Education and programs like this are the only ways to rehabilitate people and eliminate incarcerations.”
Others echo his sentiment. Lisa Bayer, a prisoner at Coffee Creek, mentions how stressful it can be to live in a dorm-like environment with 150 women. Being in the greenhouse offers a break. “It’s peaceful being out here working with the violets,” she says, as she moves between the rows of flowers in the Coffee Creek greenhouse. “It feels more like you’re at home for a few hours everyday instead of being in a prison.”
It would seem these programs would be universally applauded, yet some human rights groups raise questions worth examining. Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, is less than enthusiastic about prison programs set up to help the environment. “We think it’s great that prisoners are involved in environmentally conscious efforts,” he says. “However, while participation may be voluntary, note the inherently coercive nature of prisons.” Friedmann also finds it ironic that while prisoners are helping the environment, they are often housed in environmentally unsound facilities. He points to clear cutting when prisons are built and improper sewage and wastewater discharge as examples of prisons’ environmental footprint. (The Oregon Department of Corrections has initiated an ambitious effort to green its operations.)
Debbie Rutt, an iae contractor who works with women in Coffee Creek’s butterfly program, does not shy away from the issues Friedmann raises. While acknowledging that there is potential for exploitation of prisoners, Rutt doesn’t see that happening in these sustainability programs. She believes a common goal of those involved in the projects is treating the prisoners with dignity. “Our goal is to provide education and meaningful work opportunities in a state where law requires that men and women in corrections must work.”
The programs seem to succeed on this front, and prisoners have a job they can take pride in. For Melissa Annis that is clearly the case. When her four-year old son visits, she talks to him about what she’s doing in prison: “We look at butterfly pictures, and I tell him what I’m learning, so he’s learning along with me.” She breaks into a grin. “He goes to preschool and brags that his mother is saving the butterflies.”
Nancy Hill is a writer and photographer living in Portland, Oregon.
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