TED Conversations

Lauren Hawkins


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From ivory tower to prison cell: How can we bring conservation efforts to the public?

Conservation and other environmental movements have long been viewed as the initiatives of a select group of people. Rare, an international conservation group, seeks to change conservation policy by turning it into a movement that derives support from the public. As there website states, “conservationists must become as skilled in social change as in science; as committed to community-based solutions as national and international policy making.”

How can this be accomplished? The Sustainable Prisons Project in Washington State offers a novel approach to Rare’s mission. This project, a partnership between The Evergreen State College and Washington State Department of Corrections, allows inmates across Washington to participate in environmental education, sustainable practices, and science research projects. Learn more about this program at http://blogs.evergreen.edu/sustainableprisons/stories/prisons-with-nature/.

Creative conservation initiatives like the Sustainable Prisons Project help both the conservation movement and the participants of the program. How can we expand this project to other parts of the global community in order to fully bring conservation to the forefront of political and social discussions?


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    Jun 8 2012: It's hard to say how expand on a project like this. I think the first step would be to contact local Universities. This project must have gotten some grant money/University associated funds (at least for the research portion?). I think projects like these are actually really expensive for the return and its hard to see local governments being able to front the cost alone. I also question how valuable it is for the inmates. Gardening, feeding fish, bee keeping, and trash sorting don't seem to be the type of jobs that require a lot of experience (I mean I guess it's good that they have a job). Prisons already seem more sustainable than open society, and they get a lot of pressure from the government to reduce costs(and by extension the use of unsustainable natural resources) even without this program. Its great that the program got the prison to recycle and catch rain water but that probably costs more than what they were doing before. While it's fantastic that conservationists are taking advantage of inmates I question the sustainability of the project without all that univer$ity ca$h.
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      Jun 8 2012: I understand the questioning of the value of having inmates work but I think it's being asked with the assumption that inmates don't have the ability to think or grow intellectually or psychologically. It has been shown in many studies that just the sight of a plant has the ability to reduce stress and bring about peaceful emotions. The ability to touch plants has increased benefits. It should be noted that prisons are a place for people to be rehabilitated, not to just sit or be lucky to "have a job". Working with plants can help rehabilitate a person in prison and give them skills and the knowledge that they can help others that they may not have had before imprisonment. The value to rehabilitating, or even slightly improving, an inmates social interactions is immense to the communities they will be living in after prison.
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        Jun 8 2012: Very true, I didn't think about that. However, there are probably more cost effective ways to get inmates involved with nature. Building a recycling center, fish farm, and rain water collector seems a little excessive (or at least unreasonable on a country-wide scale). Also, inmates are offered other, more beneficial, work experiences and educational opportunities while incarcerated. I don't think this program offers them any type of degree or certification, while the prison auto body shop probably provides both. It's great that prisoners are getting involved with nature, but the whole project seems like Ivory Tower initiative that also provides researchers with free/low cost labor (IMO).

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