Using Art to Enrich Learning with Sagebrush in Prisons

By Alyson Singer, Project Manager, Idaho and Eastern Oregon Sagebrush in Prisons Program

March 2023

Just before the holiday season, we decided to conduct an educational workshop in two of the three prisons we manage for the Sagebrush in Prisons Project. Our goal was to provide valuable information on bird ecology, and incorporate art into our program—to help the residents learn, and try a new approach to teaching adults in custody about ecology.

In the 2022 sagebrush growing season, we painted rocks to help identify native plants in the prison gardens. The residents enjoyed that so much, and expressed a keen interest in doing something similar again, we just knew we had to do it again—so we decided to purchase more art materials, and return with another project later in the year. Being an artist and bird lover myself, this was right up my alley, and I didn’t hesitate to embrace the opportunity!

On December 23, 2022, I traveled to South Boise Women’s Correctional Center in Kuna, Idaho, to present “Bird Ecology and Conservation of the Sagebrush Steppe”. Twenty residents of the Correctional Center attended a two-hour interactive lecture where we discussed important conservation issues. These included:

  • Why we should appreciate birds
  • Ecological and economic benefits of birds
  • Common species of the sagebrush steppe
  • Why the greater sage-grouse is threatened
  • Other current threats to birds, and what we can do to help them

I was very pleased to see the women ask great questions, show deep interest, and thoughtfully engage in the discussion throughout the entire lecture.

To supplement the presentation, we brought in some materials for them to use:

Pictured above: The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, a Pocket Guide to Sagebrush Birds, a bird ornament and string, acrylic paint, and paint brushes. Photo credit: Alyson Singer

Each resident was assigned to:

  1. Choose one bird species found in the sagebrush steppe habitat
  2. Learn 3 things about it using one of the provided bird guides
  3. Complete an assigned ecological worksheet
  4. Finally, paint an ornament of their choosing

Our goal was to spark creativity, and give the women a sense of “choice” in the lesson—something they rarely have the opportunity to do, while incarcerated.

Once the ornaments were completed, the women had the opportunity to keep them, or give as gifts to family or friends. Photo credit: Alyson Singer

They were so excited to participate and had so much fun—no one wanted it to end! Here are some photos of the women painting their ornaments:

Photo credit: Alyson Singer
Photo credit: Alyson Singer
Photo credit: Alyson Singer

The women were extremely grateful to us for the opportunity—they thoroughly enjoyed both the learning experience, and the art activities. The residents of both the women’s and men’s facilities have expressed a keen interest in art. As time allows, we will continue to incorporate these activities into more of our workshops in 2023. It was a very rewarding and fun experience for all involved! Thank you to our partners with the Bureau of Land Management, the Idaho Department of Corrections and South Boise Women’s Correctional Center, without whom this work would not be possible.

The group of residents who participated in this workshop. I am at the bottom with my festive holiday hat on! Photo credit: Alyson Singer