How a Prisoner Became a Sustainability Champion

“How exactly does a prisoner become known as the ‘worm dude’?”

A few moments into Nick’s TEDx Talk, it becomes apparent that you’re not watching your average story of change. From a unique perspective of a worm farmer behind bars, Nick H. makes a compelling case for sustainable programs and their power to unlock untold potential among inmates.

Here’s some background: In 2010, Monroe Correctional Complex formed a committee of staff and inmates to look into the area of sustainability. The project was part of a larger statewide effort championed by the Sustainability in Prisons Project. At the time, the prison was spending about 65k per year on food waste and disposal—so the committee looked to worms to create a vermiculture program. Four years and a donation of 200 worms later, they now have over 600 million worms and the capacity to process over 10k pounds of food waste every month.

Beyond extensive money and energy savings, Nick tells a story of personal and systemic transformation. He advocates for the potential of programs like the worm farm to promote rehabilitation. In his words:

“Sustainability programs have the ability to change the thinking processes that lead to incarceration in the first place. There’s a profound transition that can take place when somebody who’s been cast out of society and branded as an offender is given the opportunity and responsibility to nurture living things and to give back to their environment.”

Toward the end of his talk, Nick details his reaction when people ask him “what his deal is” with the worm farm. It’s just worms, man! The spirit of his effort is encapsulated in his response:

“Everybody wants to feel relevant, that their lives and actions count for something—especially prisoners, who in our society have lost virtually all relevance. Sustainable programs can restore that relevance.”

Imagine the progress if we made sustainability a central component of our prisons. At this pivotal time in recognizing the damage that mass incarceration has caused, could sustainability be an integral part of the profound reconciliation that our system demands?

Danny Lampton is Communications Associate for Northwest Earth Institute



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