Sustainable Practices Lab puts inmates back to work

Herbert Rice, also known as “Chief Rice,” one of the inmates working at the Sustainable Practices Lab, poses next to bicycle frame parts he has repainted and decorated for donation to the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office D.A.R.E. program. “If you could have seen this bike before, you would have been amazed,” he said about the refurbishing work.

Herbert Rice, also known as “Chief Rice,” one of the inmates working at the Sustainable Practices Lab, poses next to bicycle frame parts he has repainted and decorated for donation to the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office D.A.R.E. program. “If you could have seen this bike before, you would have been amazed,” he said about the refurbishing work. Photo by Andy Porter.

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Lab programs

lab programs

Bicycle repair — Repairs and restores bikes donated by law enforcement, colleges and charities. Bikes are then given to underprivileged families and children.

Furniture repair — Cleans and repairs chairs, tables, desks and other office furniture that would have otherwise been discarded. Furniture is then reused at WSP or returned to the community.

Quilting and sewing — Uses donated sewing machines, fabric, needles, thread, batting and stuffing to create quilts, stuffed toys and other items for donation to charities and nonprofit agencies.

Wood shop — Uses wood and other materials recycled from pallets — donated or salvaged — to create signs, furniture and other goods for charities and to help support programs.

Vermiculture — Uses worms to recycle food waste from the institution, saving disposal costs and creating by-products used to fertilize prison gardens.

Future programs include a sign shop to create signs and banners for area charities and nonprofit agencies, a plant growth program and sustainability seminars for the general prison population.

WALLA WALLA — “Everything old is new again” isn’t just a song lyric here.

“Here” is the Sustainable Practices Lab at Washington State Penitentiary.

“It’s all about restore, repair and reuse as opposed to replace,” said Robert Branscum, the correctional specialist who heads the program.

Housed in what used to be the large building for the prison’s sign shop and garment factory, the lab and its workers are a testament to the old saying about necessity being the mother of invention.

Last summer, changes in the correctional industries system caused the sign shop to be shuttered and the garments factory to be moved to Coyote Ridge Correctional Facility.

As a result “this whole building was vacant as of July 16,” Branscum said. “We lost essentially 120 offender jobs” as well as at least five staff jobs.

The Sustainable Practices Lab was developed to replace those lost jobs with employment that allows inmates to develop and use skills to benefit themselves and the community. And it does that while recycling goods and materials that might otherwise go to waste.

At present, 72 offenders are working in the lab. “Our goal is to expand that number up to 120 by the end of the year with the opening of the new (minimum security) complex. This will help to fill the need for jobs for the offenders assigned there, as well,” he said.

A bicycle repair program was one of the first endeavours to get under way. Old and broken bikes collected through partnerships with local law enforcement agencies, colleges and charities are being repaired and rehabilitated. They are then handed to the local Eagles Lodge, which gives them to underprivileged families and children.

Since then, other activities using the same mantra of “restore, repair and reuse” have come into being. Included among them are repair and rehabilitation of furniture and exercise equipment, an extensive quilting and sewing shop, a wood shop and a vermiculture program.

The latter uses red worms, now numbering about 1.5 million, to eat about 700-800 pounds of food waste from the prison each week. The goal is to eventually have 10 million worms to turn 10 times that much waste into “vermicastings” and “worm tea” (another byproduct), which will go into the penitentiary’s gardens as soil enhancements.

As with the other activities, the worm breeding bins and other equipment were built out of salvaged and recycled materials.

On another side of the building, the quilting and sewing shop is another example of turning one person’s castoff goods into another person’s gold — or at least a darn good teddy bear.

Working mostly by hand, inmates meticulously cut and sew everything from donated bedsheets to denim to create quilts, stuffed toys, diaper bags and other items to donate to charities. They also save the penitentiary hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars by repairing and modifying clothes and garments used by prisoners and staff.

“The nice thing about this is you’re doing it for charity,” said Tony Williams, who normally goes by the name of Zeke.

“It’s fun to do because you know you’re giving back to the community.”

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