Skip to main content

She Brings Nature Inside Prisons

July 19, 2016

Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications

(Tim Kelly , DOC Communications) See photo gallery...

LITTLEROCK - Sadie Gilliom is wild about nature. As a kid, she hunted for frogs and newts in the woods near her Shelton home. When she got older, she worked at Point Defiance Zoo to care for animals and give talks about wildlife.

When Gilliom got a chance to teach inmates to take care of sick turtles as part of her graduate studies at the Evergreen State College , TESC, she didn't hesitate.

"I love the satisfaction of being able to spark an interest in science of people who don't usually have access to it," Gilliom said. "And I think they (inmates) gain a little bit of empathy from caring for the turtles."

Gilliom, 28, spends time at prisons each week showing inmates how to feed turtles and monitor their health. It's all part of her job as a turtle program coordinator for the Sustainability In Prisons Project , SPP.

SPP began through a partnership between the college and Department of Corrections 13 years ago. It allows inmates to participate in science and nature projects inside prisons . Students like Gilliom, who are in the college's Masters in Environmental Studies program, coordinate SPP projects as part of their studies. A large part of Gilliom's role includes sustaining partnerships with outside organizations to help the projects thrive. For example, Gilliom helps connect experts from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife , Woodland Park and Oregon zoos and PAWS Wildlife and Rehabilitation Center with DOC staff who partner on SPP projects.

Over the years, inmates have trained shelter dogs into service animals, grown bushels of vegetables for food banks and restored habitat for several endangered species of wildlife.

Gilliom's project allows inmates at Larch and Cedar Creek Corrections centers to rehabilitate Western pond turtles that have contracted a shell disease. The disease eats away the turtles' shells. Without treatment, it can kill them.

Inmates in the program feed the turtles, clean their wounds and monitor their health. They make observations about turtles' progress and behavior and give reports to Gilliom, who shares it with biologists and veterinarians. Those experts then make recommendations on how to proceed with care for the turtles.

Their work is paying off. Since the turtle program began at SPP three years ago, inmates have rehabbed and released a total of 34 turtles.

William Anglemyer, 42, is an inmate technician who's spent the last few months taking care of the turtles. He's thinking about going to TESC after he's released from prison in 2018. He says working with Gilliom helped him decide to study environmental journalism.

"In this setting, you don't get a lot of interaction with people interested in the environment and conservation," Anglemyer said. "She's really helpful and she's made all the difference."

Kelli Bush, SPP's program manager, says Gilliom has a way of connecting with people that's rare, noting she "has a passion for teaching others about the natural world."

Gilliom says her lifelong love of nature made her a perfect fit for SPP.

One of her first jobs was at a pet store. She took care of a rabbit with a spinal cord injury and raised money to buy it customized wheelchair. Later she worked as an outreach assistant for the Thurston Conservation District and led activities on environmental stewardship. She also became a certified interpretive guide and gave talks on turtles and frogs at the Point Defiance Zoo and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park .

Gilliom says her current job at SPP has been the most meaningful because it ignites a thirst for knowledge in people who haven't had many opportunities to further their education.

"They (inmates) really start to relate to the animals and get excited about learning,"' Gilliom said. "They realize anyone can be a scientist and answer questions about their world."

Gilliom is in her third and final year with SPP before she completes her graduate work. She's working on a master's thesis project that examines the impact nature has on prison workers. She says there's been lots of studies showing the presence of nature and animals lowers stress of inmates and people in the general population. However, there's been little to no research on how nature impacts correctional workers.

Her efforts made her realize she wants to work with incarcerated people as a career. She doesn't know if she wants to work for a corrections department, but she's thinking of starting a non-profit organization focusing on education and reentry programs to help inmates find jobs and housing after prison.

"I see an urgent need for that and I think it would be a fulfilling career," Gilliom says. "A lot of people might view inmates as bad people and have a black-and-white perspective about people in prison.

People who are incarcerated made mistakes in their past, but most of them will eventually leave prison. "They do have skills," she said. "I want to inspire them to use their skills and passion to contribute to the community."