By the time Anthony McKinney gets out of prison, he will have missed his 20s entirely. He’s 28 now, a compact man with a short mohawk and a tattoo of a chain on his neck. “When I get out, I’ll be only 30 years old, and I’ll have 13 years of prison. If that was all time wasted, I would have come out a very experienced criminal, with a stronger body and a sharper mind,” he says. “That’s not what you really want to unleash on the community.”
It’s a cloudless day in western Washington, sunny and hot, and McKinney and three of his fellow inmates are tending to the apiary at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center, in Littlerock, outside Olympia. Until he was transferred here from a prison in Arizona, McKinney says, he was on the road to exactly that scenario. “I was very angry up until about six months ago,” he says. “I’ve been active in negativity for the past ten and a half years in the system.” The bees changed all that.
McKinney is one of about 60 inmates involved in the Sustainable Prisons Project, a collaboration between the state Department of Corrections and The Evergreen State College. The project began here at Cedar Creek, a minimum-security work camp, and has expanded to three other prisons. Inmates compost the facility’s food waste. They sort recycling by hand. They grow organic produce. They collect rainwater for the gardens. They raise bees. And they partner with scientists to do ecological research projects; right now, two of them are painstakingly raising endangered Oregon spotted frogs.
“If you can create jobs or activities for offenders that are educational in nature, what you’re doing is employing people and getting them out of their cells,” says the state’s deputy director of prisons, Dan Pacholke. “Any prison system will tell you that idleness is a bad thing. If we don’t have stuff for them to do, then we’re just going to hire more security staff.” Pacholke, 49, is a career DOC employee whose expertise is high-security response and emergency operations: escapes, disturbances, hostages, executions. His demeanor is easygoing, but he’s not the kind of man who spends taxpayers’ money on bleeding-heart projects. “It’s environmental economics,” he says. “We’re expensive places to operate. I could sell the [project] on cost containment alone: solid waste, energy, food costs.”