The work of rearing threatened plants and animals for restoration to the wild takes time and patience and it is labor intensive. In Oregon and Washington, a growing population doing that work is inmates.
The greenhouse complex inside Washington State's Stafford Creek prison near Aberdeen lies beyond two metal detectors and three sally ports topped with razor wire.
That's where a small crew wearing standard prison-issued khakis do the work. Months from now, the flowers that emerge will be transplanted to remnant prairies around Puget Sound to provide food for endangered butterflies.
"These plants are so fickle,” said inmate Toby Erhart. He and his fellow inmates have plenty of time to nurture, experiment and hone their craft on tray after tray of seedlings.
"You cannot have a nursery that produces these for money because they would go broke -- or the cost would be so high that nobody could ever restore anything,” Erhart explained. “That’s why this is such a good fit to have prisoners doing this because... well, I mean they don't have to pay us much."
Participating inmates are paid a nominal rate for their labor -- less than a dollar an hour.
Learning new jobs skills
Erhart is serving time for child rape. He said his greenhouse work has made him more observant and "conscientious."
Those sorts of outcomes account for why the program caught on with prison superintendent Pat Glebe.
"It helps with the level of violence in the prison because these inmates all of a sudden have something to do,” Glebe said. “They see the value in it. And they see the value of giving back.”
In Oregon, a voter-approved ballot measure -- Measure 17 -- has long required all inmates to work full time or attend classes. The challenge that presents for prison managers to find meaningful work activity for everyone further explains why Oregon's prison system was fertile ground to host conservation nurseries.
According to Carl Elliott, the conservation nursery manager for the Washington Sustainability in Prisons Project, inmates who stick with the project can earn a vocational certificate attesting to job readiness as a horticulture technician.
"They will be able to get those skills in one year," Elliott said.
Big societal benefits, small costs
This prison's conservation nursery has produced more than a million rare and endangered prairie plants since it opened five years ago.
This concept germinated a decade ago at a minimum security prison near Olympia as a science education partnership between The Evergreen State College and Washington Department of Corrections.
A mishmash of federal, state and private foundation grants cover most program costs.
One of the partners bringing money to the table in Oregon is the nonprofit Institute for Applied Ecology. Its director, Tom Kaye, said the societal benefits make it worthwhile to put up with inevitable security complications.
“The advantages far outweigh any of these disadvantages because we are able to get so much more done for ourselves in the mission that we're trying to accomplish,” he said.
In the prison greenhouse out past Aberdeen, the work sometimes looks tedious and repetitive. But that didn't stop inmate Joseph Njonge from applying for a transfer to the 2,000-bed Stafford Creek prison specifically so he could compete for a job in the conservation nursery.
"It's hard to get into the program, but when you get into the program what they teach you is something that you probably won't get somewhere else,” Njonge said. “Most of the seeds they are having us grow are endangered -- plants you won't find anywhere else in the U.S. except here."
The immigrant from Kenya hopes his newfound skills give him a leg up for a conservation job when he finishes his 16-year sentence for murder.
"I have (decided) that this is what I am going to do when I get out of here,” Njonge said.
A growing concept
Elsewhere, inmates are turning over new leaves, too. Conservation nurseries have sprouted at three Oregon prisons. Inmates at other Washington prisons have branched out into rearing threatened butterflies, frogs and turtles for release into the wild.
In Oregon, inmates at the state prison near Ontario are growing sagebrush to support habitat restoration for the greater sage grouse. Inmates at a correctional center in Salem are rearing threatened golden paintbrush on the prison grounds for seed production. Female inmates at Oregon’s Coffee Creek prison grow the early blue violet, which provides sustenance for rare butterflies when out planted on the Oregon Coast.
The National Science Foundation provided money a few years ago to propagate the sustainability in prisons idea from coast to coast. Some other places where inmates are providing conservation muscle include California, Maryland and Ohio.
At a state prison in Ohio, inmates are rearing endangered Eastern Hellbender salamanders for release in the wild. In Maryland, inmates do some of the heavy lifting to prepare bags of oyster shells used in restoration of Chesapeake Bay.