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Inmates Adorn Governor’s Residence with Handmade Holiday Decorations

December 08, 2015

By Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications Department of Corrections

Inmate Candace Ralston adds a pine cone to a garland above the main entryway inside the Washington State Governor’s Mansion in Olympia.

Inmate Candace Ralston adds a pine cone to a garland above the main entryway inside the Washington State Governor’s Mansion in Olympia.

OLYMPIA – Candace Ralston helped hang up white lights, nearly a quarter-mile of garland, 22 wreaths and numerous planters and floral arrangements at the governor’s mansion last week in preparation for a series of annual public holiday tours that take place this month.

“It’s very exciting and beautiful to see all the furnishings and the atmosphere. It’s nice to do something for the community. It’s a way we can give back where we can,” said Ralston, an inmate at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) in Gig Harbor.

Ralston and four other inmates from the prison spent the day adorning the mansion with sparkling decorations handmade in the prison’s floriculture and horticulture programs. It’s become a tradition for inmates from WCCW since First Lady Trudi Inslee took a tour at WCCW three years ago. She was impressed by the programs and invited the Department Of Corrections (DOC) to send an inmate crew to decorate the residence for the holidays.

That experience was so successful, inmates have continued putting up decorations every December since. In addition to the greenery used at the mansion, floral arrangements made by inmates are often used in events and have won awards in competitions at the Washington State Fair.

The floriculture program at WCCW is one of several education programs offered through the DOC and local colleges aimed at reducing recidivism rates by giving inmates job skills, technical training and an opportunity to continue their education after release.

The program teaches inmates how to cultivate flowering plants and create professional arrangements. Inmates who complete the floriculture and horticulture classes at WCCW can use their experience to obtain credit through Tacoma Community College.

“It stimulates the intellect and gives something for inmates to work toward,” said Ed Tharp, who teaches horticulture at WCCW. “The best part is seeing these ladies succeed, build their self-esteem and gain self-confidence. It’s rewarding for them to give back and showcase what they’ve learned.”

Selection and Security

DOC officials say being able to take a field trip to decorate the mansion is a privilege for inmates. Participants must meet a list of requirements, including being infraction free for a least a year and have no more than four years left on their sentence. In addition, they must have earned a GED, be part of the floriculture/horticulture program and not have any connections to known gang members or potential victims in the community. Correctional officers and a class instructor accompany the inmates at all times.

Ralston, who is serving a 96-month sentence for theft and forgery, has been participating in the floriculture and horticulture programs for about a year and says the skills she’s learned will help her obtain employment after she’s released.

“I am so blessed to have been in this program because it puts us in contact with a lot of potential employers on the outside,” the 46-year old said, noting she wants to go back to school to become a greenhouse manager or horticulture technician. “It opens up a whole new realm of jobs out there for inmates.”

For 30-year-old Lindsay Gates, the opportunity gives her a chance to exercise creativity.

“At first I thought arranging flowers would be boring,” said Gates, who is serving a 63-month sentence on drug possession and identity theft charges. “But it’s a very artistic experience and it gives inmates a chance to express ourselves. I feel like we get treated like individuals.”

Spaces on the holiday tours of the Washington State Governor’s Mansion are full. However, the Department of Enterprise Services Capitol Tour Office has a waiting list, should any spots on the tour open up. To be added to the waiting list, call (360) 902-8880.

View a video of last year’s decorations here .