Female Inmates Are Helping to Save Endangered Butterfly Species From Behind Prison Walls

A team of female conservationists is helping to save an endangered butterfly species in Oregon—and they are doing it all from within the walls of a prison.

Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, which is the only women’s prison in the state, hosts a conservation program that recruits inmates to care for the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly.

Since losing most of its habitat in the Pacific Northwest, the butterfly was officially listed as an endangered species several years ago. Thanks to the women in Coffee Creek, however, over 1,200 larvae have been raised and released back into the wild since the program’s creation in 2017.

During the program’s inaugural year alone, the team released almost 600 butterflies that were raised in their facility. In March, they released hundreds more.

The program was created in collaboration with the Oregon Zoo, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Institute for Applied Ecology as a source of rehabilitation for the inmates and preservation for the species. Not only does the facility provide a controlled, isolated environment for the butterflies with a team of dedicated workers on hand, it provides essential job skills and psychological relief for the inmates trained to work in the lab.

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“Having a captive rearing and release program in Oregon is vital for the recovery of Taylor’s checkerspots,” said Oregon Zoo butterfly conservationist Ronda Naseth, who advises the program at Coffee Creek.

Additionally, she says that “inmates who have the opportunity to participate in this species recovery program are eager to share what they’ve learned with their loved ones. That has the wonderful ripple effect of more and more people in our communities caring about the future of these butterflies.”

Coffee creek butterfly conservation team and the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly — Photos by Oregon Department of Corrections (left) and Aaron Barna / USFWS (right)

Carolyn Exum, one of the lab’s five butterfly technicians who was incarcerated on a 24-year sentence for a felony murder charge, told Oregon Public Broadcasting in the interview below: “It feels like I’m in an actual lab. We work professionally, together … it just takes you out of the actual prison environment, it gives you a sense of peace.

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“I often say when I’m going to work that we’re saving the earth one butterfly at a time. And I feel like I’m part of a bigger picture. It starts here,” she added.

Once Exum is eligible for release in 2024, she says she plans on using her experience to begin a career in conservation and give lectures on the importance of the Coffee Creek program.

(LISTEN to the Oregon Public Broadcasting interview below)

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