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Most spider mite research projects involve the tedious work of counting spider mites—peering down a microscope to count tiny specks on leaves.

Some would even call it cruel and unusual punishment. But a Washington State University researcher has found a workforce that enjoys the monotonous work, and he’s even saving money for the state’s grape industry.

One of the biggest expenses in spider mite research is the cost of counting and recording mites in the laboratory from collected leaf samples. It’s a task usually assigned to research or lab technicians, and one that WSU’s Dr. David James did early in his career. “Technicians don’t want to do it,” he said of the boring work that involves sitting hunched over a microscope for hours.

But James found a creative way to count the spider mites in his project.  He’s using a workforce that not only has unlimited hours for work but also volunteers to work for free. The workers are a select group of inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

The mite counting worked so well last summer that he’s using the prisoners at Walla Walla again this season in the second year of his grape spider mite project. A one-day workshop is held at the beginning of the season to train the prisoners how to recognize and identify spider mite species. Throughout the counting process, the inmates’ work is checked to ensure mites are being properly counted.

The prisoner spider mite work is part of the Sustainability in Prisons Project, a partnership between Washington’s Evergreen State College and the Washington State Department of Corrections that started more than ten years ago. The sustainability project brings science and nature into prisons to involve inmates in a host of conservation and science programs, from beekeeping to raising rare and endangered species like the Oregon spotted frog, Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, and

Oregon white oak trees. It’s a rehabilitation of both people and the environment.

James got involved with the Sustainability in Prisons Project several years ago when prison officials contacted him about his “Beauty with Benefits” research on using native flowering plants to increase butterflies and beneficial insects in vineyards (read “Beauty with Benefits,” May 1, 2011, Good Fruit Grower). As a result, Walla Walla prisoners now rear and tag butterflies for James, who then releases them and follows their migration. The inmates’ work with butterflies led to collaboration on James’s mite research.

He says the prisoners seem to enjoy the work. “I’ve been told that it has improved behavior and has been very positive from a mental health aspect. Some of these guys are in here for life. This gives them something to look forward to and a sense of achievement and purpose. It’s a win for research, inmates, and the grape industry.”