The strange power of moss for redeeming prisoners
08 October 2008 | News story
The connection between moss and the rehabilitation of prisoners may not be obvious, but it is the starting point for an innovative conservation outreach project in Washington State, USA.
“In the old growth forests of the Pacific North West where I live, moss is being harvested for horticulture - it is being stripped without replanting,” says Nalini Nadkarni, Faculty Member in the Evergreen State College. “Until recently we didn’t know that it takes decades to grow back.”
She hit on the idea of asking prisoners at the Washington State Penitenciary to help her figure out how to grow moss in artificial conditions. “Firstly because they do have the time and space but also because this means they would have contact with living plants. I think one of the worst aspects of incarcaration must be the lack of contact with nature,” says Dr Nadkarni.
The prisoners took to the idea with enthusiasm. With a little support, they designed the experiments and took the data and one inmate even co-authored an article later published in a scientific journal. Prison staff and managment were also receptive to the project which soon mushroomed into a series of other activities including organic gardening, biodiesel, recycling, bee-keeping and composting.
“The sense of sustainability spread throughout the prision,” says Dr Nadkarni, “every one of those topics has now been incorporated into how the prison operates.”
She has also noticed a big change in the prisoners. Their usual topics of conversation – focusing on how long their sentences are or who put them inside – have changed to include when the vegetables can be harvested or which of the chillis they are growing will be the hottest. “I think this is one of the most redemptive things we can do for our prison population,” says Dr Kadkarni.
The fact that this message about this very green form of prison reform is getting through to Washington State’s Corrections Department is clear from the $US300,000 grant they recently awarded to keep up the good work. “Our state has a 40 percent re-offender rate so the authorities obviously think we can do something about this,” says Nalini Nadkarni.