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Slow-growing Moss Project Helps Prisoners Do Their Time


Moss in Prisons is a project designed to help ecologists replace large quantities of ecologically important mosses that are regularly illegally stripped from Pacific Northwest forests by horticulturalists.

But the program also gives people with a lot of time something to do.

“I need help from people who have long periods of time available to observe and measure the growing mosses, access to extensive space to lay out flats of plants, and fresh minds to put forward innovative solutions,” says Nalini Nadkarni of Evergreen State College, who runs the program with funding from the National Science Foundation.

Her researchers are inmates at Cedar Creek Corrections Center, a medium security prison in Littlerock, Washington.


Photo courtesey Nalini Nadkarni of Evergreen State College

The prisoners have been conducting experiments since 2004 to identify the best ways to cultivate slow-growing mosses.


Ecologically important mosses are (often illegally) stripped from the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest for the growing horticulture trade, which currently exceeds $265 million per year. But because mosses may take decades to re-grow, such harvesting is not sustainable.

Photo courtesey Nalini Nadkarni of Evergreen State College

In addition to managing the Moss in Prisons research at Cedar Creek, Nadkarni helps the facility’s inmates run various projects that promote sustainable living — including an organic garden that produces 15,000 pounds of fresh vegetables every summer, a bee-keeping operation and a composting operation that processes one ton of food per month.


Nalini Nadkarni of Evergreen State College at Cedar Creek.

Photo courtesey Nalini Nadkarni of Evergreen State College

One member of Nadkarni’s research team, who was released from Cedar Creek, enrolled in a Ph.D. program in microbiology at the University of Nevada and presented his Cedar Creek research at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America in August 2008.

Watch this Seattle television station, KCTS9, video about the Moss in Prisons program: 

Nadkarni started the Moss in Prisons project with a type of NSF award that is specially designed to help scientists reach out to public audiences. She has also received additional funding from the Washington State Department of Corrections.


A Cedar Creek inmate and researcher in the Moss-in-Prisons project studies mosses.

 Photo courtesey Nalini Nadkarni of Evergreen State College

In addition, Nadkarni has creatively stretched project resources by recruiting other NSF-funded researchers to contribute to a lecture series that she started at Cedar Creek. By giving such lectures, these scientists fulfill requirements for conducting public outreach that accompany NSF awards.

Nadkarni has also received funding from National Geographic for projects not related to Moss in Prisons.