Good works

Inmates help grow native plants for conservation projects

Ryan Sharrer, plant specialist for the Washoe State Tree Nursery, inspects a tray of narrow-leaved milkweed plants.

Ryan Sharrer, plant specialist for the Washoe State Tree Nursery, inspects a tray of narrow-leaved milkweed plants.


For more information on the Washoe State Tree Nursery:
For more information on the Eastern Sierra Conservation Camp:

On a sunny Friday in October, an inmate from the Eastern Sierra Conservation Camp stood outside a greenhouse at the Washoe State Tree Nursery in Washoe Valley, hosing down rows of long, narrow pots. His supervisor, Deric Fuller, stood nearby, backed by wide-open views of Slide Mountain and the Carson Range. “It’s fun,” said the inmate, who has worked at the nursery for 10 months. “I’m happy to work here. No complaints.”.

The Nursery, established as part of the state-run Nevada Nursery Program, provides low-cost plants for conservation plantings in the Great Basin and Sierra Nevada. It is one of two nurseries run by the Nevada Forestry Division, and employs a workforce of four to six prison inmates, as well as an inmate crew supervisor and two regular employees. The other state nursery is located in the Las Vegas Valley and also employs an inmate crew.

The Washoe Valley nursery focuses primarily on growing native and drought-adapted plants, which require little water once planted and established. In addition to selling plants, the nursery provides educational materials, advice to landowners on appropriate species to use in plantings, help with plant identification, and occasional classes and workshops. Inmate crews handle much of the planting and day-to-day maintenance work.

On the wall of the nursery’s main office, a framed and famed New Yorker cartoon shows a man walking with a young boy through a forest. The caption reads: “It’s good to know about trees. Just remember, nobody ever made any big money knowing about trees.” For members of the inmate crew, who earn only $2.10 per day, this message certainly rings true—but the job is an opportunity to develop job skills and do something productive with their time. It also keeps operating costs down at the nursery.

“It’s good for the nursery and hopefully it’s good for them too,” said nursery employee Ryan Sharrer. “I’ve definitely seen some guys that become interested in what we’re doing, and interested in plants because of it. The idea, too, is that they’re learning things. Some of these guys have never had a real job before.”

Of the $2.10 per day the inmates earn, they keep very little. According to Nevada Corrections public information officer Brian Connett, 24.5 percent of inmates’ wages covers room and board at the conservation camp, and five percent goes to the state Victims of Crime Fund. Ten percent of their wages go into a personal savings account, and 20 percent may go toward child support, if the inmate has a child. Up to 50 percent may go toward any cost that the inmate owes the correctional center, such as fees for medical care.

During fall months, most of the inmates’ work involves maintaining the grounds, cleaning pots and greenhouses, and preparing for next season’s plantings. Sharrer and fellow nursery employee Amy Bray will soon head out in search of seeds and cuttings that they will grow into new plants for next season. “We try to focus on local seed and cutting sources, so that we’re using genetics from the local area in restoration plantings,” Sharrer said.

Many of the plants that the inmates grow will be purchased by organizations such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, or the Nature Conservancy. Although the nursery does sell to the public, under a 1979 State Forester’s regulation, plants are only available to landowners with more than one acre who live outside city limits.