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Washington State Penitentiary inmates donate to non-profits, save lives

The Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla is saving taxpayer money, recycling tons of local materials and saving lives across the world through the Sustainable Practices Lab.

The program gives inmates with good behavior a place to work and learn new skills as they prepare for release. They use only donated and recycled materials to complete projects for the prison or make things for non-profit groups across the country.

The warehouse has stations for furniture making, upholstery, woodworking, teddy bear making, an outdoor garden, and even quilting. 

Inmate Kieth Parkins said it all started with quilting five years ago, but he helped develop new programs and trained other inmates to create more projects. 

"Even though this is WSP, here we are in a warehouse that doesn't even look like prison. Guys are able to come out here and live a completely different life," said Parkins.

"Education, effective communication, and this is basically a working environment," said Correctional Specialist Chris McGill.

McGill says the program helps decrease violence between inmates.

"They have a good job and they get responsibilities. And they have that responsibility, they have to come back the next day so it keeps them staying out of trouble," said McGill.

The work environment breaks down barriers between fellow inmates and officers.

"It allows a person to really take off their mask, and when you're able to take off your mask and be at yourself you develop a different type of relationship the communication is completely different," said inmate Derrick Jones.

Their creations have gone to non-profits in nine countries.

"The only time our name has ever been mentioned is connected to something that we've done wrong and so for a person to do something and have their name connected to something they've done right i think it's really powerful and transformative," said Jones.

The program save tons of materials from landfills in the process. They recently began vermiculture composting - turning worm waste to fertilizer. They feed those worms to a pool of Tilapia and Trout. Their waste grows plants that in turn purify water.

Workers also take classes in the green economy. 

"They can sit in front of the future employer and they can talk their language because the green economy has their own language, they know it from the textbook and then they have the experience," said Parkins.

The program brightens their resume, but more importantly, their outlook.

"For many of us, we were told you're a reject, you're trouble, you're not a success, you're a failure. But then once we come out to SPL we're actually able to to give back," said Parkins. "It changes our hearts, it changes our souls."

Their newest project is the most life-changing.

The group was commissioned to make 150 water filtration systems for schools in Uganda, led by Parkins.

He hopes to create an assembly line, building one filtration system every two minutes.

"I'm a lifer," said Parkins. "For us, we don't have an opportunity to be able to go back to society to make a difference."

The filtration system is giving Kieth and dozens of others the chance.

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