Starting in 2010, a prison guard and a few inmates began a vermicomposting program at Washington State Reformatory. Vermicomposting is a process that takes left over food and table scraps and turns them into compost with the aid of earth worms. Vermicast compost contains water-soluble nutrients and is an excellent, nutrient-rich organic fertilizer and soil conditioner.

The Washington State prison system is a leader in training inmates for jobs in the green economy after their release. Gardening and prairie restoration have long been part of the reformatory’s instructional offerings. But vermicomposting is not in the vocabulary of most prison wardens, so the inmates had a hard time getting approval for the program at first. They had to construct all of the infrastructure for the recycling system from whatever materials they could find.

According to reporter Amy Nile of the Everett Washington Herald, “Laundry detergent containers were turned into worm breeding cases. The garden beds were made from old mattress cases. The compost bins, which retail for about $5,000 each, were made from scrap wood and old food carts.” And it didn’t hurt that the inmates provided the labor for free.

What started as a program with no budget and 200 big, fat earthworms has now turned into a commercial success that saves the Reformatory nearly $8,000 dollars each year because it doesn’t have to pay for garbage disposal any more. Nile notes the compost goes on the Reformatory’s garden which supplies produce to the kitchen. Some of it is also shared with the town of Monroe, saving it some money.

Best of all, the inmates who participate in the program learn valuable skills that will help them find work once they are released. So everyone wins in this process, especially the earthworms!

This story first appeared on SustainaBlog.