TOPICS > Science

Washington Inmates Help Protect Endangered Frog, Prison Budget

December 3, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As part of our NewsHour Connect series showcasing public media reporting from around the nation, Jule Gilfillan reports for Oregon Public Broadcasting on a program that has inmates working on environmental projects to conserve water and help protect endangered spotted frogs.

This segment was originally produced for OPB-TV’s ‘Oregon Field Guide.You can watch the full version here.

JIM LEHRER: For stations not taking a pledge break, we have a story about a prison project that offers benefits for inmates and the environment. It’s part of our new series NewsHour Connect.

Tonight’s story comes from Jule Gilfillan of Oregon Public Broadcastinhg.

HARRY GREER, inmate, Cedar Creek Correctional Center: They’re pretty fast. There we go.

JULE GILFILLAN: Harry Greer is raising endangered Oregon spotted frogs for release back into the wild.

HARRY GREER: See the spots?

The biggest ones that we had last year were 58 gram.

JULE GILFILLAN: But Harry is not a professional and these fat, healthy frogs are not the only ones waiting for release.

HARRY GREER: I’m here on a robbery beef. I have 18 months 10 days and a wake up and I’m done.

JULE GILFILLAN: This is the Cedar Creek Correctional Center near Olympia.

How often are you guys testing the water quality?


JULE GILFILLAN: The frog rearing program here pairs inmates with scientists from the Evergreen State College as part of the Sustainable Prisons Project. So far, the frogs grown at Cedar Creek Correctional Center are doing better than those grown by professional zoologists.

LIESL PLOMSKI, graduate student, The Evergreen State College: They have a lot more time here to care for the frogs that a zoo wouldn’t have. I mean they’re here all day with them, so they change the water frequently. They feed them more frequently than a zoo could ever do.

DAN PACHOLKE, former superintendent, Cedar Creek Correctional Center: Good morning, guys. How are you doing?

JULE GILFILLAN: Dan Pacholke was superintendent at Cedar Creek back in 2003.

At that time, Dan needed to expand the inmate capacity, but his water treatment plant was maxed out.

DAN PACHOLKE: We decided to reduce consumption and started working on water conservation measures. And along the way, I met Nalini Nadkarni, who is a professor and faculty of the Evergreen State College.

JULE GILFILLAN: After hearing about the issue, Nalini arranged for a scientist to teach the prison’s staff and inmates about water conservation.

NALINI NADKARNI, professor, The Evergreen State College: And I saw the men responding in such a positive way, so I began inviting my colleagues to come and give talks about their own areas of science. Some of those lectures inspired action. So the next trip I came out here, you know, lawn had been ripped up and there was this fabulous organic garden.

That turned into composting. We then started worm composting. We started recycling. We started water catchment basins.

JULE GILFILLAN: Before long, Cedar Creek’s inmates were scarping their trays instead of washing food waste down the drain and processing compost for use as fertilizer in vegetable gardens.

What started off as water conservation quickly became a full circle green culture and the Sustainable Prisons Project was born. The project was also good for Cedar Creek’s bottom line.

DAN PACHOLKE: It absolutely saves money. It saves money every way that it can be saved. Our garbage bill went down by about $500 a month. Our water use rates started to drop. The amount of total suspended solids down in our sewage treatment plant was dropping off tremendously, which meant we didn’t have to do a $1.4 million expansion.

JULE GILFILLAN: After five years, the benefits of sustainable practices were paying off in a big way.

NALINI NADKARNI: It was at that point I think Dan and I realized we had something special here. And it was at that point that I said, you know, I think there are other, larger scale science — science and conservation projects that we could bring into this.

JULE GILFILLAN: That’s when Cedar Creek began an experimental program to see if offenders there could grow frogs for a new partner, the U.S. Army.

JIM LYNCH, biologist, Joint Base Fort Lewis McChord: This is Dahlman Lake (ph), a reintroduction site for the Oregon spotted frog. This is where all the frogs grown at Cedar Creek and the other facilities, the other zoos, have been released.

JULE GILFILLAN: Jim Lynch is a fish and wildlife biologist at Joint Base Lewis McChord, a vast facility that covers some 200 square miles.

JIM LYNCH: We’ve released, for two years now. And each year, there have been approximately 500 frogs released.

JULE GILFILLAN: So far, the frogs seem to be doing well. But they’re just one of many species the Army hopes to restore.

JIM LYNCH: The goal is to restore 20,000 acres of habitat to high quality native prairie.

JULE GILFILLAN: To take on the monumental restoration task, the Army turned to the Sustainable Prisons Project and to the Stafford Creek Correctional Center in Aberdeen, which houses 2,000 inmates.

TOBY ERHART: The first year, we did about 120,000 of nine different species. This year, we’re doing near 400,000 of 13 different species.

JULE GILFILLAN: Stafford Creek inmate, Toby Erhart, is growing prairie grasses for the Lewis McChord restoration with the help of Evergreen graduate student, Carl Elliott.

CARL ELLIOTT, graduate student, The Evergreen State College: So the training is basic horticulture techniques. And I spent a lot of time teaching them sensitivity and observation. I want them to be able to observe what they see and be sensitive to changes in the plants or insects that they may see affecting them.

And that’s why they’re good for the insects, because —

JULE GILFILLAN: The time these inmates have for observation and recordkeeping also results in valuable scientist data.

TOBY ERHART: There’s virtually no science on the germination or growth of these species, because they are wild and no one has cultivated them for profit so there’s no mass sowing (ph) information on them.

JULE GILFILLAN: The program may be without a profit motive, but there’s plenty of motivation.

NALINI NADKARNI:I mean I came to a prison thinking it was going to be so tough and so hard to break through to these guys with bald heads and — and tattooed. And they’ve been the easiest. They’ve been the ones who have accepted and wanted more — more than other audience I’ve

— I’ve ever worked with.

TOBY ERHART: The scientist aspect of this project has been pretty much new to me. I had never even heard of any of these things. These are called lomatium that we’re planting right now. These ones, they’re littleeriophyllum linatum.

You know, I — I’m learning Latin, for goodness sakes. You know, linatum means to provide with wool or covered with wool.

JULE GILFILLAN: In addition to educational and scientific benefits, there also seems to be a social upside.

NALINI NADKARNI: What I’ve seen is that their stress levels go down and their fear levels go down. Their aggression levels go down. It’s a hard thing to measure in a prison, but we have some deep sense of that in each one of the prisons that we’re working in and each type of the projects that we’re working, as well.

CARL ELLIOTT: They begin to work as a team much better.

Oftentimes, that’s not how things work socially among offenders. And slowly but surely, that’s happening.

JULE GILFILLAN: The partnerships formed by the project seem likely to continue, even if the relationship Harry Greer has formed with several dozen Oregon spotted frogs will be over in a few months.

HARRY GREER: I’m happy to see them go, you know what I mean, because they’re being set free, which my turn is coming, too. And I’m rooting for them. I want to see them live and produce and bring back what we worked for.

JEFFREY BROWN: You can see an extended version of that story by following a link on our website.