Butterfly program gains wings at prison

Inmates are preparing to release monarch butterflies raised in a new program at the penitentiary.

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The star of the show. A monarch butterfly rests in the palm of David James' hand. If all goes well, in about two weeks hundreds of the butterflies will be taking wing from Washington State Penitentiary as part of a Washington State University research project.

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David James, Washington State University entomologist, talks about the Monarch butterfly breeding project at Washington State Penitentiary. In his hand is one of the subjects of the project.

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One of the signs in the Monarch breeding project room.

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A Monarch butterfly starts life as a caterpillar, shown above.

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A penitentiary staff member peers into one of the Monarch butterfly breeding cages built by inmates for the project.

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A penitentiary staff member peers into one of the Monarch butterfly breeding cages built by inmates for the project.

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A Monarch butterfly chrysalis in one of the breeding cages at the Washington State Penitentiary.

WALLA WALLA -- An unusual program is taking flight at the Washington State Penitentiary.

The prison has been chosen as a location for a monarch butterfly breeding project facilitated by Washington State University and run by inmates.

The project focuses on breeding, tagging and releasing monarchs to learn more about their migration patterns and to encourage population growth in the area. David James, an entomology instructor at the WSU Prosser campus for 13 years, said penitentiary staff sought him out to request the project be carried out in Walla Walla.

Tamara Russell, director of residential psychology at the penitentiary, said the staff was looking for a project that would promote community growth and sustainability when they came upon James' initiative. The inmates were chosen based on multiple levels of psychological and behavioral screening. Russell said she requested responsible and dependable offenders with little to no risk of incidents and was given a list by support staff.

Penitentiary spokeswoman Shari Hall said inmates were asked if they cared to take part in the project, which is unpaid.

Joshua Tucker, an inmate at the penitentiary for two years, said he enjoys the hour or two break he gets from being in the general population.

"It's calming," said Tucker, who said he is serving a 36-year sentence. "In prison there tends to be more people who are still messing around. When you're trying to change your life, it's natural to stick together with like-minded people." He said he's been involved in the project since it started June 11.

James first met the offenders June 29 when penitentiary staff invited media to review the project. He said Russell has relayed his instructions to the offenders.

Russell and James said the inmates involved have improved project operations on their own.

When explaining the process of caring for the butterflies from egg to caterpillar to when they emerge from their chrysalis, commonly known as a cocoon, Tucker said there's a lot of trial and error.

He said oftentimes when moving the food for the caterpillars or when handling the milkweed, the monarchs' exclusive food source, the insects can either fall and be fatally injured from the impact or they can easily be stepped on if not noticed on the floor.

Russell said inmate Preston Rogers is responsible for a lot of the advancements.

She said Rogers implemented putting paper towels over the opening of empty soda bottles filled with water that hold the milkweed plants, to keep young caterpillars from falling in.

Rogers said he owes much of his knowledge to his previous employment with a fish and game department.

"It's important to be really careful with all of the caterpillars, especially the small ones. If we don't wash our hands we can transmit diseases and viruses like colds or anything to them," he said.

He said young caterpillars' small size after hatching makes handling them carefully necessary.

James shared a page in his book "Life Histories of Cascadia Butterflies" that says freshly hatched caterpillars are just 2.5 millimeters long.

"If you're not careful you can have a disease outbreak that can wipe out an entire colony. You must be very hygienic to do this project and these people are able to do that," he said.

He also praised the inmates' initiative.

"They've learned how to do this project themselves. They have made improvements in rearing the butterflies and this is their first time. It's not easy to do it requires attention to detail. This will yield a lot of data and eventually if I am able to write and publish a paper on this study I will credit these people," he said.

The six inmates involved in the project spend roughly two hours a day cleaning and tending to the insects and their cages. The cages are recycled food containers that are used at the penitentiary. The were modified by offenders in the engineering program, according to Hall.

Hall said a high level of attention is given to sustainability at the penitentiary and was one of the reasons the butterfly project was sought out as a candidate for offender involvement.

The butterflies emergence from chrysalis takes about 10 days, James said. He said the butterflies are tagged two days after emerging, when their wings have been given time to harden. The tags are attached with an adhesive and have an identification number and email address on them. James said anyone who spots these marked butterflies should take note of the number on the butterfly, the date and location spotted and email the information to the address listed on the butterfly.

The butterflies are scheduled for release beginning July 9, the date their expected to emerge.

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