Nalini M. Nadkarni: The Future We Want
Finding the balance between despair and hope – prisoners as partners in action for the Earth
Inmate Hammons cradles the tiny green frog in his large rough brown hand. The surroundings of cold concrete and razor wire are invisible to the two beings in the Cedar Creek Corrections Center prison yard. One is a human incarcerated on criminal charges, the other an endangered amphibian, raised to its healthy adult state by the inmate. Both are soon to be released to the green world outside; the human with a new-found desire to study wildlife biology, and the frog to protected wetlands. This unlikely scenario was created through the Sustainable Prisons Project, a collaboration of the Evergreen State College with the Washington State Department of Corrections to bring science, conservation, and sustainability studies to incarcerated men and women.
I began this program with Cedar Creek’s Superintendent in 2004 on a shoestring budget with the belief that putting nature and science in the hands, minds, and spirits of people who are most despairing can result in hopeful actions. This belief has flourished. Prisoners in six Washington State prisons are rearing endangered frogs and butterflies, growing endangered plants for restoration projects, raising vegetables, composting, bee-keeping, and recycling – and listening to scientific lectures behind prison walls. Those who have bring these activities behind bars have been inspired by the inmates’ curiosity and enthusiasm, and the strength of the pull to help the Earth from people who seem the least likely to care.
As a small brown woman scientist who studies trees in a large green world whose colors are rapidly fading, I know my power to shift the values of people from consumption to sustainability is limited. But it is not nothing. It exists. The future I want is to find the balance between despair and hope that will incite positive actions. I hope to see a forest of projects that weave science and nature into parts of society that involve not just inmates of real prisons, but those incarcerated from hope for the Earth in other ways – people in assisted living centers, in hospitals, in poverty, in urban habitats that offer only gray, in consumerism.
When I walk the prison halls from the greenhouse to the bee-keeping shed, and see the men transplanting turnips and tending to the hives, I recognize the future I want—one in which even those who seem most removed from nature, knowledge, and hope—can lead us all from despair to action.
Nalini Nadkarni is the director of the Center for Science and Math Education at Utah University