Learning from TED: January 28, 2013
Today I watched another interesting video about teaching and working in prisons. It was Nalini Nadkari: Life science in prison. She talks about trees and how we usually view them as static things. That is because we focus on the trunk. She decided to look at the twigs instead. By having trees “paint” pictures, she noticed two things: that each species has a unique signature and that there is a lot of movement, that trees are actually very dynamic. She says:
But I was also interested in the movement of trees and how this art might let me capture that and quantify it, so to measure the distance that a single vine maple tree — which produced this painting — moved in a single year, I simply measured and summed each of those lines. I multiplied them by the number of twigs per branch and the number of branches per tree and then divided that by the number of minutes per year. And so I was able to calculate how far a single tree moved in a single year. You might have a guess. The answer is actually 186,540 miles, or seven times around the globe.
Now this part of the video was interesting to me, and I wold have been satisfied if it had ended with this. But it didn’t, of course, she went on to talk about another entity that we view as being static: prisons.
And prisons are static — even though they are growing and multiplying by leaps and bounds. It is hard to see any positive movement in them. As Nadkarni said:
Prisons, of course, are where people who break our laws are stuck, confined behind bars. And our prison system itself is stuck. The United States has over 2.3 million incarcerated men and women. That number is rising. Of the 100 incarcerated people that are released, 60 will return to prison. Funds for education, for training and for rehabilitation are declining, so this despairing cycle of incarceration continues.
But Nadkarni had a plan:
In the year 2007, I started a partnership with the Washington State Department of Corrections. Working with four prisons, we began bringing science and scientists, sustainability and conservation projects to four state prisons. We give science lectures, and the men here are choosing to come to our science lectures instead of watching television or weightlifting. That, I think, is movement. We partnered with the Nature Conservancy for inmates at Stafford Creek Correctional Center to grow endangered prairie plants for restoration of relic prairie areas in Washington state. That, I think, is movement. We worked with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife to grow endangered frogs — the Oregon spotted frog — for later release into protected wetlands. That, I think, is movement.
She continues to discuss other programs they have developed, all of which demonstrate the movement that is possible in prisons.
The movement that she talks about is something I see every day working as an educator in a prison. I really believe that most of our inmates want to do something constructive with their time in prison. When they are offered interesting programming, they clamor to get in. The problem is that we are not able to offer much in the way of interesting programming.
But maybe that is because we are looking at the trunk and not at the twigs. Maybe we are not thinking enough outside the box.
We have taken programming into a couple units where any kind of programming at all is welcome because they had nothing. And that is great. But we need to do more. It will take a lot more to change the cycle of incarceration Nadkarni talked about. And that will be real movement if and when it happens.