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Sustainability research and practices in enforced residential institutions: collaborations of ecologists and prisoners

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Enforced institutional settings such as penitentiaries provide environments to raise awareness, carry out research, and implement and assess practices for sustainable living. Institutions where residence is enforced due to health, recreational, military, or legal reasons (e.g., assisted living centers, summer camps, army bases, prisons) house people who may lack scientific training but have time and need for intellectual stimulation that can be filled by supervised research. These institutions have stable populations, structured social organization, and measurable inputs and outputs of materials and energy to carry out sustainable practices in tasks that affect regional resources such as groundwater quality and landfill use. We report on three examples at a corrections center resulting from partnerships among visiting academic ecology researchers, sustainability practitioners, corrections administrators, and prisoners: (1) research on how to sustainably “farm” moss for the horticulture trade to reduce harvesting pressure on wild moss populations; (2) a vermiculture and thermophilic composting system to reduce the kitchen waste; and (3) a monthly seminar series at the prison. Over 26 months: (1) participants developed methods to optimize moss growth; (2) landfill-bound waste and particulate flow rate destined for wastewater treatment decreased by 50%, to less than 50% of permit limits; (3) resulting compost (ca. 5000 kg) fertilized institutional vegetable gardens; (4) water quality improved so that the prison could return funds allocated to upgrade the prison’s water quality. The lectures encouraged intellectual exchange among researchers, convicts, and guards. Researchers derived new perspectives and broader impacts for their work. This can be a model for other correctional facilities and other enforced residential institutions (ERIs).

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Average daily population


Analysis of variance


Organic loading 5-day biochemical oxygen demand


Clallam bay corrections center


Cedar creek corrections center


Department of corrections


Dissolved oxygen content


Enforced residential institution


Larch corrections center


Olympic corrections center


The Evergreen State College


Total suspended solids


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We acknowledge the strong support of Superintendent Dan Pacholke, Thomas Matthews, Georgia Harvey, and staff of the Cedar Creek Corrections Center and Washington State Department of Corrections. We also thank Linda Glasier and Janine Bogar (Environmental Unit) and Janet Glover (Budget Manager) of the Department of Corrections. Raymond Price provided the initial critical contact and sustained positive and critical efforts to maintain the project. We also thank Wayne Hudspeth, Adrian Wolf, and Erica Guttman for help. Nancy Parkes, faculty member at The Evergreen State College, provided guidance. The Helen R. Whiteley Center provided support for reflection and synthesis of these activities. Funding was provided by the National Geographic Society Conservation Trust and the Informal Science Education Program at the National Science Foundation (ISE 03-22214).

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Correspondence to Nalini M. Nadkarni.

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Ulrich, C., Nadkarni, N.M. Sustainability research and practices in enforced residential institutions: collaborations of ecologists and prisoners. Environ Dev Sustain 11, 815–832 (2009).

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  • Citizen science
  • Composting
  • Corrections center
  • Enforced residential facility
  • Prisons
  • Science literacy
  • Sustainability
  • Vermiculture