Moss In Prisons

by Michelle Frank

Urban Systems Lab
Apr 23 · 12 min read

Part one of a forthcoming RESILIENCE series on the scientific and social justice work of Nalini Nadkarni

“There is, on average, a correctional institution within 20 miles from all academic institutions.

This means there is potential to enact a STEM program regardless of wherever a scientist is based.”

Nalini Nadkarni [1]

In 2003, Nalini Nadkarni, a canopy ecologist with an appetite for outreach and an “across-the-aisle” style of communication, laid the foundation for an unexpected partnership. She launched a program that would later grow into a multi-state, prison-reform collaboration between environmentalists and corrections departments. The idea started with some moss.

Nadkarni studies ecosystems in the highest reaches of old growth forests. She scales ancient trees, and early in her career she pioneered the use of rock climbing techniques along with an invention she calls the “Master-Caster” — a cross between a fishing rod and a slingshot — to hoist a rope and ascend hundreds of feet in the air. Once there, she studies the interactions of species that are seldom seen from the ground.

The Moss-in-Prisons Project initially grew out of Nadkarni’s concern about the overharvesting of rare mosses from old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. Like many other ecologists, she was concerned about the impact of the practice, not only on moss but also on other species that depend on moss for habitat, nest-making and nutrients. The University of Washington compares the practice of moss-harvesting to strip-mining, and ecologists decried it prior to Nadkarni’s intervention. The practice is largely unregulated, and mosses are widely used by the floral industry. In 2003, Nadkarni was teaching at a small, progressive college in Olympia, Washington, and she set out to establish a new education program that might also protect native mosses. When she launched the program, the progressive bona fides of The Evergreen State College, where she taught, was well established, and the Pacific Northwest was an ideal place for ecological activism. Still, prison staff and leadership hailed from different political and cultural stock than members of Evergreen’s liberal community. Enlisting their buy-in would require diplomacy.

The Moss-in-Prisons project had two stated goals: 1) to provide emotional benefit to incarcerated persons, and 2) to create an alternative to the harvest of wild moss populations. In her original proposal, Nadkarni described the Moss-in-Prisons project as a confluence of social benefits: offering therapeutic and skills-based training for prisoners, and supporting ecological protection. Unfortunately, the project showed little initial promise as a forum for farming moss. Nonetheless, the partnership spawned education and outreach initiatives in four prisons, and it later expanded to a wide range of sustainability projects known as the Sustainability in Prisons Project, or “SPP.” SPP now operates close to 200 programs, ranging from honeybee protection to rare butterfly breeding; spotted frog population restoration to organic farming for food pantries, and the project conducts composting/recycling and waste diversion programs as well.

There are valid questions about employing prison labor in an outside enterprise, regardless of the social value of the work performed. Nadkarni is under no illusions about this issue; she raises the concern directly in public talks and in conversations with prison leadership and other scientists. Similarly, SPP Co-Director, Kelli Bush says that the SPP program works hard to avoid “greenwashing” the deep and entrenched problems of mass incarceration and exploitation in the United States. Today, the SPP vision statement reads:

In response to the dual crises of ecological degradation and mass incarceration, we aim to reduce recidivism while improving human well-being and ecosystem health. SPP brings together incarcerated individuals, scientists, corrections staff, students, and program partners to promote education, conserve biodiversity, practice sustainability, and help build healthy communities. Together, we reduce the environmental, economic, and human costs of prisons.

In response to these issue, SPP combines education programming, environmental projects, re-entry services and the commitment of a professional network that continues to offer support even after participants leave prison. According to Bush, many participants return to prison settings after release, not through recidivism, but as credible messengers to others. Even so, Nadkarni and Bush both acknowledge that compensation for incarcerated workers has a long way to go. “The system is deeply broken,” says Nadkarni. “But if we don’t take small steps, then we’re really stuck.” Bush says, “At the root, we need systemic change. In the interim, we want to support individuals inside.”

One way that Nadkarni offers support is by legitimizing the role of incarcerated students who are studying and conducting scientific research. To that end, Nadkarni co-authors scholarly work with participants. She regularly cites an article in Environment, Development and Sustainability for which she shared the byline with an early participant, Craig Ulrich, and for which he was the senior author. After release, Ulrich went on to pursue a Ph.D. He is now a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Nevada. The process of co-authoring was slow, she says, and early drafts had to be sent back and forth by way of prison staff. Ulrich says that without computer access in prison, he wrote his sections of the article with a golf pencil.

By 2006, as the SPP was finding its footing, Nadkarni grew interested in how prison education initiatives might be used to bend prison culture. In particular, she wondered how her project could narrow the social gaps between inmates and prison staff. She wrote about the idea at the time, noting that by bringing inmates and prison staff together for science lectures, the structure would be “unique in terms of the sociology of the prison… rather than the usual practice of separating them.” Initially, the only room large enough to hold the full group was a chapel. Nadkarni says that prison staff and incarcerated students sat down on opposite sides of the aisle, like two tense families at an uneasy wedding. In across-the-aisle fashion, though, Nadkarni stepped up as the ultimate officiant. In 2009, a reporter for the Pacific Standard wrote:

[T]he first attempt at an academia-corrections interface was awkward. Prison dogma precludes inmates and staff sitting in the same room, but Nadkarni knew the professors wouldn’t be willing to deliver separate lectures. “I said, ‘You want these speakers or not?’” Nadkarni recalls, and Cedar Creek relented, allowing talks that inmates and staff attended together. …Science, she says, erased some of the tension between prisoners and jailers.” A prisoner would ask a really smart question,” she says, “and you could just see the guards going, ‘Holy shit!’ And then a staff member would raise his hand, and the prisoners said, ‘Wow!’”

Today, Nadkarni describes that early moment as one of the highlights of her prison education work. “Suddenly,” she says, “we were able to overcome the lines of distinction that reinforce the worst part of mass incarceration: dehumanization. This is the power of teaching and learning.”

One hopes that such moments carry forward. And indeed Nadkarni is hopeful, saying. “Once you see someone as human, I don’t see how you can erase that.”

In 2011, Nadkarni left Evergreen to direct the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Utah. She brought the prison partnership model along with her, launching the “Initiative to Bring Science Programs to the Incarcerated” (“INSPIRE”) in 2012. INSPIRE picked up where SPP had left off, centering science education for populations who did not typically view themselves as scientists, or even as students. The program offers Informal Science Education (ISE) lectures on topics that range from astronomy to zoology — including molecular biology, bioinformatics, and neuroscience. Nadkarni and the INSPIRE team help each scientist to plan their lectures to ensure that diverse learners will understand the complex material. In recent years, the project has expanded to include women’s facilities and juvenile detention programs where instructors incorporate art alongside science programming. The goal is to interest and include students who might initially shy away from STEM, and those who may find art or poetry more approachable.

Not long after founding INSPIRE, Nadkarni began to lobby prison leadership for permission to bring nature into high security settings. She knew that access to nature was essential to prisoner well-being, but the idea faced resistance from corrections staff. Undeterred, Nadkarni began to talk publicly about the importance of contact with the green and blue parts of the world, especially for “severely nature-deprived” populations. She raised the issue repeatedly for two years, through public conferences, workshops and TED talks.

Eventually in 2013, Nadkarni says, a prison staff member who had seen one of her TED talks reached out to her directly. He told her that he had formed a committee called the “Forward Thinking Committee,” and he wanted to bring a pilot project to Snake River Correctional Institution in Oregon. While high security inmates were not allowed to participate in science education programming, Nadkarni began working with Snake River to bring nature imagery to prisoners in solitary confinement using videos of forests, mountains and waterways. Ostensibly, the imagery was offered to prisoners in order to study whether it impacted their emotional states. And indeed, prisoners who viewed nature imagery reported reduced levels of stress and anxiety. In a chapter of Nature Love Medicine: Essays on Wildness and Wellness, Nadkarni noted that “men and women in the cellblocks of solitary confinement… are held in concrete windowless cells the size of a parking space for twenty-three hours a day, with one hour in a slightly larger concrete exercise room. …After a year, our surveys and interviews of staff and inmates revealed that they felt lower stress, agitation, and irritability, and were able to carry a ‘sense of calmness’ from seeing the nature video when they returned to their individual cells.” Notably, prison staff also reported a corresponding drop in violent behaviors by 26% among prison inmates who had access to the nature imagery that the pilot project provided. Here, Nadkarni found ways to promote ecological and humanistic goals while also fostering a sense of investment among prison staff and leadership. Her initiative revealed surprising alignments between the vision and values of the project — the importance of access to nature and the humanity of incarcerated people — and the hopes of corrections staff who had a vested and personal interest in maintaining low-cost peace within prison walls.

Recently, INSPIRE has become the basis for a series of scholarly articles about the acquisition of science knowledge, in partnership with NASA’s Astrobiology Program. Together, NSPIRE and NASA delivered prison educational programming in four states, reflected about the role of environmental outreach and examined the outcomes of ISE initiatives in the prison context. The program had IRB approval, and when analyzing results, Nadkarni drew comparisons to science education outcomes outside of prisons, where significant and enduring gaps in STEM access persist along race and gender lines. In 2020, INSPIRE researchers found that women, Black men, and participants with less than a high school education or a GED made the most distinct gains after participating in ISE lectures. Not surprisingly, this finding correlated with the fact that white, male students disproportionately started with higher levels of science knowledge and confidence than their peers, even before participation in INSPIRE. Daniella Scalice, the Education and Communication Lead for the Astrobiology Program, says that Nadkarni’s intellectual humility was essential to the project’s success. Through inquiries like these, INSPIRE radically repositions prison classrooms, considering them equally valid spaces for learning as any other arena where students study and become scientists.

Notwithstanding these successes, Nadkarni also highlights critiques to her programs. In her writing about prison education, she points out that ISE initiatives are more modest in scope than degree-bearing programs offered in some prison settings. And she talks openly about the importance of dialogue, of listening deeply to challenges and finding opportunities for collaboration with advocates who promote different strategies than SPP and INSPIRE. She identifies the prison abolition movement, for example, as an essential part of the advocacy community, even though their methods of working towards change differ from one another.

In glass-half-full style, though, Nadkarni frames the distinctions between her programs and others as a positive. She suggests that the informal science education (ISE) programs inspire appreciation from participants and are less costly for prisons to implement, even though they deliver fewer “real-world” benefits than degree bearing programs. In an article in 2017, she noted that her program costs came to only $43,000 per year for two science lectures a month, equivalent to $45 per inmate per year, or $4.00 per inmate per month. More important than financial considerations, though, success depends on the ability to communicate with respect and diplomacy, Nadkarni says.

Nadkarni observes that the scientists who participate in ISE programming inside prison walls are, themselves, strongly impacted by the experience. Having worked on initiatives like SPP and INSPIRE for over fifteen years, she is increasingly curious about the impact of prison education collaborations on the scientists and educators who teach in the programs. When scientists learn about the injustices inherent in the correctional system, she says, it promotes a greater level of thoughtfulness and activism. She has seen responses among instructors that range from direct advocacy efforts to participation in broader movements focused on prison reform, and she sees prison education initiatives as helping scientists more clearly perceive the need for widespread, inclusive practices within academic spheres as well. In short, scientists are learning how to apply lessons from prison settings to expand access to science and to nature to other underrepresented groups.

Nadkarni’s personal story and her approach to scientific collaboration are deeply and poetically connected. She holds a firm belief that different components of an ecosystem or a community can be mutually reinforcing. Early experiences drive her commitment to outreach beyond traditional audiences. She is the child of a bi-cultural marriage during an era when miscegenation was still outlawed in the United States; her Indian father was viewed as Black under the law at that time, and her mother is white, so her parents had to travel from Washington D.C. to New York State to legally wed. The middle of five children, Nadkarni often reflects on how one of her childhood harbors was in the tops of the trees that surrounded her parents’ home. In an essay for Allison Hawthorne Deming’s The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity and the Natural World, Nadkarni wrote,

What has fueled this journey, which has taken me from the ivory towers of academia to the watchtowers of prison yards? Having a hybrid background allowed me to “see” nature and my connections to it in complex ways, a gift and consequence of my brown skin and my mixed upbringing. It has compelled me to look outside my own discipline to fully understand what I am curious about. The strong colors of the Indian culture of my father and the vibrant hues of the urban Jewish culture of my mother mixed but did not merge. They coexisted, retaining their own purity, and complemented rather than conflicted with each other. This allowed me to see multiplicity in everything around me: the subtle differences between species niches in forest canopies; the multiple values that trees provide to humans; and the many valid ways that people come to understand nature and the world.

Nadkarni has been awarded funding and related support from the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Science Foundation and others to create a “Science Ambassadors” program. The goal is for scientific colleagues to reach out more frequently to non-traditional audiences. To this end she encourages replication, and in her 2017 article, “How to Go To Prison,” Nadkarni lays out a step-by-step instruction manual for others to build successful prison education projects based on her SPP experience and INSPIRE partnerships

Nadkarni acknowledges that prison education projects will not, by themselves, solve deep, historical and persistent injustices. In 2017, when she wrote about how others could build on what she created, though she began with an epigraph from Victor Hugo. It said, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”

[1] M.M. Young, “How to Go to Prison- a Guidebook for Building a Prison Science Program,” Nalini Nadkarni (blog), September 11, 2019, Retrieved from

Michelle Frank is a Brooklyn-based writer pursuing an M.A. in Biography and Memoir at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research focuses on science biography, with an emphasis on underrepresented voices in physics and ecology. Her poetry has earned writing grants from Sundog Poetry Center and the Ossabaw Island Writers’ Retreat. She is inspired by connections between social justice, science and the arts.

Resilience Quarterly

A forum for collaborations to envision more equitable and resilient cities.

Resilience Quarterly

Resilience is a quarterly publication co-produced by the Urban Systems Lab at the New School, providing a unique forum to share strategies in design, data visualization, and interdisciplinary scholarship on urban ecology, environmental justice, and sustainable cities.

Urban Systems Lab

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Research, design, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities.

Resilience Quarterly

Resilience is a quarterly publication co-produced by the Urban Systems Lab at the New School, providing a unique forum to share strategies in design, data visualization, and interdisciplinary scholarship on urban ecology, environmental justice, and sustainable cities.

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