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Green Jobs for Jailbirds

Can turning prisons into hothouses of sustainability pay off for everyone?

"You've got 98 percent germination! That's amazing!" The men keep a logbook, in which they note dates and types of seed planted, time to germination, and other data. Nadkarni and the inmates trade hypotheses on why some of the plants grow faster than others. She says it's clear they're doing a wonderful job. "The plants are telling me that. It's like the frogs at Cedar Creek," she says. "They did better than any of the other facilities that have these professional wildlife people working on them."

"Why do you think that is?" Erhart asks. He reaches down and absently plucks a weed from one of the tubes.

"This is like your link to nature," says Nadkarni.

The men nod. "Plants actually feed off of you," says Smith.

"Absolutely. And we feed off them. It's a circle," says Nadkarni. "And I think the circle you have is really tight, going on in this greenhouse."

"It's the constant care that we give them every day," says Smith. "We get excited when we see them germinating. And the plant feels that, our excitement, so it thrives more."

He thinks for a moment. "As far as the difference between here and maybe somewhere where a professional horticulturist is doing this as part of his job? You know, they do that for a living. We do it for 42 cents an hour. That's not a living. We don't do this for the money, and I think that's what the difference is. We were hired from a pool of, what, 1,800 people that could be doing this? And we're the ones doing it. We do it because we like to do it. If we didn't, I don't think the success rate would be so high."

This is the crux of the issue that will confront the Sustainable Prisons Project going forward. All of the green jobs at Stafford Creek combined employ about 40 people—and the men who pull cardboard boxes out of the waste stream, who rebuild broken bicycles, who train troubled dogs for adoption, are some of the most motivated, best behaved inmates at the prison. They have to be, or they wouldn't qualify for these jobs. What about everyone else? And if their interactions with science and nature are as transformative as they seem to be, wouldn't the men who aren't already changed be the ones who need it most? In other words, which comes first—does the work motivate the men to change their lives, or is it only the men whose lives are already changed that sign up?

Pacholke says that even those inmates who are not involved in the program are affected by it. He recalls the day they served salsa in the Cedar Creek dining room, with all the ingredients grown and harvested by inmates. They put signs up so the men would know where the food had come from. "There's an educational component to that, because people start getting curious: 'What do you do out in the garden?' It changed the dynamic of the prison." Like Travis Brown talking to his friends about radishes at dinner, "the informal network of their communication gets centered around more green kinds of activities." What's more, Pacholke continues, it's sometimes hard to tell where the "green" jobs end and the regular jobs begin. The guys in the kitchen preparing the organic food, or scraping waste into the compost bins? They're learning environmentalism, too, albeit on a much smaller scale.

And if the green activities are enough of a presence in the prison, maybe some guy will ride into the compound on a bus, in shackles, and see the stacked white boxes of beehives, and maybe this will put the germ of change in his mind. That is what happened to Anthony McKinney.

In the apiary, the grounds unfold around us in shades of green and brown. Cucumbers grow in a little garden nearby, and a patch of earth is upturned where the men harvested garlic yesterday. McKinney points to the lid of one of the hives, a white rectangle some three feet long and two feet wide. "If this whole board was who we are, about this much of it"—he traces a very small square with his finger—"is the part of us that got us in here." It's easy to imagine that small square. It's filled with violence, drugs. Ego. Kidnapping, burglary, and robbery, which are what McKinney is here for. "It's humbling to come out here, slow down, and see: There are other living things, and you're not the center of the universe." The bees, he says, "they're aware of our presence here, but they really don't care. I'm not important to them whatsoever."

"I thought this was the world," McKinney says of his little square, laughing softly. "That's all I cared about. But there's so much more to us, and there's so much more growth that we can experience, if, not so much given the opportunity, but even just pointed in the right direction. If a door was opened, and said, 'Look. Look what's inside.'"

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