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Planet Earth

Laboratories in Lockdown

Inmates have time to watch moss grow.

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Prisoners used to be put to work on chain gangs. Now they do science. Nalini Nadkarni, a forest ecologist at Evergreen State College, recruited inmates from her local prison, the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Littlerock, Washington, to conduct experiments on how to cultivate mosses in mid-2004. Their results are the first step toward the commercial cultivation of mosses, a green alternative to the current practice of collecting it from the forest floor. The U.S. floral industry alone consumed up to 81 million dry pounds of moss in 2004, a grossly unsustainable figure.

The collaboration was a natural fit. Nadkarni had know-how to share but was too busy to watch mosses grow; the inmates were starved for stimulation and had time to spare. “I picked the four most common types of mosses, and we set up some really basic experiments,” she recounts. “Which species grew fastest? How should we water them? Should we grow them in flats or hanging in the air?” She gave the prisoners data books and some basic training in measurement protocol and let them at it. Her graduate student is now analyzing the data and preparing them for publication.

Of the 36 men who cycled through Nadkarni’s greenhouse duty, one inmate went on to study horticulture after he was released. “He was almost evangelical about his experience because he felt he had something to contribute to science,” she says. Nadkarni hopes to secure funding to continue and expand the program to more prisons and areas of scientific research: “It’s really about bringing scientists who have questions together with an audience who can help them out.

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