Growing Ahead: Providing hands-on opportunities for inmates to contribute to ecological research.

Author:Crockett, Emily Gaines
Position:SCIENCE - Report

A small stand of bulrush, a grass-like plant normally found in wetlands, is out-of-place and struggling at the edge of the Salt Lake County Jail's garden. Inmate trustees were asked to plant the bulrush in the garden and painstakingly kept it alive for several weeks, even though they knew that it would not survive over the long-term. Why would a group of inmates choose to invest so much effort in caring for this particular plant?


Thanks to a 2014 collaborative pilot project that involved the Salt Lake County Jail, University of Utah and Utah State University, the inmates spent six months studying and growing bulrush in order to make an important contribution to wetland restoration research.

A growing movement spearheaded by the Sustainability in Prisons Project Network (SPPN) is bringing conservation-oriented science and research projects to prisons across the U.S. Inmates have been growing native plants, rearing state and federally listed endangered species and cultivating moss. (1) Exposing inmates to these types of projects provides enrichment opportunities and benefits such as a strengthened connection to the community and environment, (2) therapeutic value from caring for plants and animals and/or viewing nature (3) and an increase in pro-environmental attitudes that are correlated with pro-social attitudes. (4)

Despite successes in prisons, long-term conservation research projects have only rarely been attempted in jail settings, where inmates are incarcerated for shorter periods and therefore have less time for intensive research training and continuous attention to a single project. In 2014, the University of Utah-based "Initiative to Bring Science Programs to the Incarcerated" (INSPIRE) launched a pilot project to bring local researchers into a jail setting for an inmate-facilitated wetland restoration research project. Although the constantly changing stream of inmate researchers presented unique challenges, the project was ultimately successful for both the researchers and the inmate participants.

The project

The Salt Lake County Jail (SLCJ), in Utah, is 10 miles from the outskirts of the Great Salt Lake. The 400,000 acres of wetlands that surround Great Salt Lake are the largest wetland area in the state of Utah. They provide critical habitat for millions of migratory birds each year, in addition to playing important roles in flood and pollution control. As with many wetlands nationwide, Great Salt Lake wetlands face a number of threats such as losses due to development, pollution and water diversions.

In their natural state, wetlands support a diverse community of native plants, such as bulrush, that provide food and shelter to wildlife. When wetlands are disturbed by humans, native plants are often pushed out by invasive plants that lack the same desirable benefits. In Great Salt Lake wetlands, tens of thousands of acres have been overrun by the invasive plant Phragmites australis. (5) Long-term removal of Phragmites and restoration of native plants is difficult, as native plants such as bulrush do not immediately return when Phragmites are removed. (6;7)

Researchers at Utah State University (USU) are tackling the Phragmites challenge from many angles and are working to understand the optimal conditions to...

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