08/30/2012 06:34 pm ET

Sustainability In Prisons Project Helps Inmates Save Endangered Butterflies (PHOTOS)

Here is a mental exercise: Imagine convicted felons raising butterflies. It doesn't really work, right?

But that's exactly what's happening at the Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women in Belfair, Wash. The inmates at the prison, with the help of guards and graduate students, are breeding endangered orange-and-white Taylor's checkerspot butterflies in greenhouses funded by the Department of Defense, reports

The Sustainability In Prisons Project (SPP) -- the umbrella organization under which the Mission Creek initiative is taking place -- is a partnership between the Washington State Department of Corrections and Evergreen State College, according to The project was created by Nalini Nadkarni, a professor at Evergreen State College. "A lot of her work is about coming down from the ivory tower and involving under-served audiences in science," Dennis Aubrey, a student at the Mission Creek project, told

The Sustainability in Prisons Project is about empowering inmates. They apply for positions and are trained on the job, reports The project, which works with prisons across the state, began in 2004 when inmates helped identify a sustainable replacement for moss harvested from forests, says Grist. "Most people are in the prison yard talking about who did them wrong," Aubrey told Nature. "Then, all of a sudden, guards will tell us they hear people saying, ‘Hey did you see how that moss was growing?’"

The women have raised more than 3,600 Taylor's checkerspot butterflies to release into the ecosystem next year. The inmates also conduct experiments to help preserve local plant species -- thereby contributing new information to the scientific community. The inmates will be listed as contributors when the results are published.

"This new program is a very important part of the recovery program for Taylor's checkerspot," Kelli Bush, who is a project manager at the SPP, told the Huffington Post via email. "Our egg-to-diapause survivorship was 96.6 percent (during the first season). Biologists are very excited about this high survivorship."

The organization has also funded similar projects at other correctional facilities: At the Stafford Creek Correctional Center, inmates raised 40 species of endangered plants for the state.

The projects have also led to lower rates of recidivism. Seventy eight prisoners were involved with the Mission Creek project and 18 have been released, of which none have returned to prison, and one-third are employed, according to Nature. "It's a win-win-win-win," Carri LeRoy, SPP's project co-director told the publication.

"I'm a lot calmer, and I feel like I have a plan and purpose and I know what I want to do with my life," Carolina Landa, an inmate at Mission Creek Corrections Center who is serving a sentence for drug possession, told the Kitsap Sun. "I'm very excited when I get back out there to do that with my family."



Sustainability In Prisons Taylor's Checkerspot Butterflies Program