U professors reach out to SLC jail

N-jail Colby Patterson
Biologist Nalini Nadkarni presents a lecture on trees to prison inmates in Washington. PHOTO COURTESY OF BENJ DRUMMOND.

Biologist Nalini Nadkarni presents a lecture on trees to prison inmates in Washington. PHOTO COURTESY OF BENJ DRUMMOND.

U scientists are teaching at the Salt Lake County Jail.

The Center for Science and Mathematics Education started the program, called INSPIRE, on March 24. It is modeled after a similar program launched at Washington State by Nalini Nadkarni nearly 10 years ago. Nadkarni, now a professor at the U, hopes the INSPIRE program will have as much success as the Washington State program.

“This program is important because it is an example of how scientists can bring science education to all people, not just those who can come to our campus or visit scientific institutions,” Nadkarni said.

Emily Gaines-Crockett, the program director for CSME, said they reached out to the county jail and the state prison system to start the program.
“They are both very interested, but the group that was ready to start up first was Salt Lake County jail,” Gaines-Crockett said.

The Mar. 24 lecture was the first of the monthly lectures that will be given by U faculty or graduate students. The monthly lectures will be delivered to unit 5D in the jail. Inmates have the option to go to the lectures or stay in their cells. Gaines-Crockett said they expect high turnover because inmates are released more often at the county jail than the state prison.

Gaines-Crockett said in addition to the recurring monthly lecture they will have a conservation research project in the jail’s green house. The conservation research project will address a question raised by a research student at Utah State about the optimal growing conditions for bullrushes, a native wetland plant.

“It seemed like the perfect time to bring everyone together and give the inmates an opportunity to do some hands-on science,” Gaines-Crockett said.

Gaines-Crocket called the arrangement a “win-win” situation for both inmates and professors, since inmates get an opportunity to continue their educations, and professors get a new audience for their material and ideas.

“[The] Bureau of Justice reports that incarcerated men and women who receive some kind of educational program are 13 percent less likely to re-offend and return to prison, which costs taxpayers money,” Nadkarni said. “Exposure to science might awaken interest and awareness of the possibilities of finding employment in the science sector after they leave prison or jail.”

Gaines-Crockett said there are very few programs nationwide that teach inmates math and science, which makes the INSPIRE program even more rare.

“To have a program brought in that is science-focused is unusual,” Gaines-Crockett said. “At least in my view, the Washington [State] program that Nadkarni started 10 years ago was really groundbreaking in that regard.”

Gaines-Crockett said she expects the INSPIRE program to expand from the Salt Lake County jail to the state prison system.

n.turner@chronicle.utah.edu