BELFAIR, Wash. – It was the state budget cut with a silver lining.
The state Department of Natural Resources last year cut funding for an inmate firefighting crew based at Belfair’s Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women. Fifty of the approximately 180 inmates at Mission Creek were left with a lot more time on their hands.
“It was a struggle to think, ‘What are we going to do with 50 women?’ ” said Wanda McRae, Mission Creek’s superintendent.
They then looked locally.
Mission Creek officials had already established a community service crew, so they basically expanded it, McRae said. And the partnerships have blossomed.
In one of the most successful partnerships thus far, inmates have teamed with the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, which works to restore salmon habitat.
Each Monday, groups of eight women are taken to rivers and streams around the Hood Canal, where they work all day spraying knotweed, a noxious weed that can destroy salmon habitat.
The inmates from the minimum-security prison get training, pay of $1 an hour and a chance to venture beyond the prison walls for a short time. The salmon group gets an enthusiastic cadre of women who can complete half-mile eradication efforts in a day.
“One day with a crew of eight can do so much,” said Julie Easton, the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group’s volunteer coordinator.
The inmates can also take a test to become licensed at handling and spraying pesticides.
“It’s another thing I can get my license for,” said Stephanie Humphreys-Bennett, a Tacoma woman serving 43 months for possession of stolen property.
The mother of five has taken every opportunity while incarcerated to gain experience that might help her get a job when she’s released.
“The blessing in this is we were able to find a program that helps the Hood Canal as well as the offenders,” McRae said.
Each woman on the crew must have a track record of good behavior and have worked her way through jobs within the prison walls before being considered for a community project.
As a reward, they get to work on such a job “outside the gates,” said Devina Taylor, a Seattle woman serving 29 months for identification theft and drug possession.
Knotweed, a plant native to Asia that escaped from gardens here, invades the habitats of native plants and can lead to river and stream banks collapsing and to the spread and mixing of sediment, which impedes salmon from swimming upstream.
Mission Creek Corrections Center inmates are also helping set up the Kitsap County Fair and are building a greenhouse and doing maintenance work at Harmony Hill, a nonprofit retreat center for cancer patients in Union.
More projects are in the works, according to prison officials.
Michelle Gustafson, of Shelton, admitted she never held a job for very long before prison, but she is enjoying the chance to work along the river. Through her time in prison for theft, she’s found a possibility for a new career or at the very least, some education.
Plus, “it helps the time go fast,” she said.