Sustainability in Correctional Facilities

Doing Time in Greener Prisons

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Tommy Norris is director and CEO of, an online source for what's happening in environmentally responsible, corrections-related, programs and services.

Nalini Nadkarni is the director of the Center for Science and Math Education at the University of Utah. She helped found the Sustainable Prison Project at Evergreen College in Olympia, Wash.

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Posted: Wednesday, September 5, 2012 4:00 pm

Most people in the United States live in its cities, suburbs or small towns. These people interact with their environment in ways that are sometimes sustainable, sometimes not, but their impacts are measurable and knowable. However, another 2 million individuals call a prison, jail, or detention center home, at any given time. Just like people on the outside, they consume food, use water, and require a living environment that is dry, clean, and safe.

That's why the sustainability practices developed by municipalities and other large institutions have now made their way into the correctional marketplace.

While not mutually exclusive, there are two main threads of thought on sustainability practices in correctional facilities. One places the focus on opportunities for prisoners to expand their education while also directly helping the environment. These programs, such as the Sustainable Prisons Project centered in Washington, puts the emphasis on working with nature and creating “sustainable people.” The other thread focuses on prison facilities, working to make the physical environment energy efficient. These two threads come together in modern corrections as inmates are prepared for “green-collar” jobs that might employ them upon release. is focused primarily on the physical environment of prisons. Its CEO, Tommy Norris, said the organization is an outgrowth of the American Correctional Association’s (ACA) Clean and Green Committee.’s mission is to “create an online resource for corrections practitioners and providers of sustainable products and services to learn about each other.” Further, they have developed an educational component focused on environmentally responsible products and services intended for the corrections industry.

Norris cites U.S. Department of Justice figures that there are more than 2,000 prisons in the United States, with an additional 3,000 jails and detention centers. Typically, prisons are large facilities housing individuals serving sentences of one year or more. Jails and detention centers might be small or large, but they typically house individuals awaiting trial or serving short sentences. Combined, these facilities have an operating budget in the billions of dollars, Norris said.

One thing these facilities have in common is that many are antiquated, with inefficient infrastructures. “The physical plants for facilities are not very energy aware or conscious, and with the growing number of jails and prisons seeking accreditation, institutions are becoming more aware of products they use and the presence of toxics, caustics and flammables,” Norris said.

Accreditation for prisons and jails comes from the ACA. It is not mandatory, and requirements vary based on elements such as size and population served. Although voluntary, Norris said many prisons want to be accredited because it shows they are aware and compliant with modern professional standards. One requirement for accreditation is compliance with the ACA’s Greening Standard. Facilities must demonstrate that “they have examined, and where appropriate and feasible, implemented strategies that promote recycling, energy and water conservation, pollution reduction and utilization of renewable energy alternatives.” helps prison administrators learn about green products and how to procure them from vendors. They are developing a database of sustainable products and services related to recycling, energy conservation, use of solar, green chemicals and how to be more compliant in the accreditation process. They also work with vendors to help them understand the security differences between working in a prison and in the “free world.” delivers a broad educational program to guide administrators and vendors alike, including newsletters and webinars. This October, their annual conference, National Symposium on Sustainability and Corrections, will be held in partnership with the Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC). It will feature workshops, national presenters, exhibitors, and a tour of the Putnamville medium security facility in Indiana “to see sustainability at work.”

That facility has several green initiatives designed to both save money and give offenders skills that will help them find green-collar employment upon release. Some of their successes to date include the $1.25 million in savings realized through using a wood chipper that fuels a wood-burning furnace. Also, Putnamville saves approximately $150,000 each month recycling cans, bottles, paper, and other material. Finally, the first windmill turbine in the IDOC system generates enough power for one large building and a water conservation system that saves a million gallons a day.

In addition to these money-saving practices, offenders learn to refurbish bicycles for children in need around Indiana. They get involved in horticulture, too, growing native wildflowers on prison grounds, then drying, processing, and packaging the seeds for the highway department to plant along Indiana roadways. This type of horticulture program is starting to be seen in correctional programs across the nation.

For example, in Maryland, prisoners are part of the government’s announced goal for a million new trees in the state. One particular area of effort is around Wye Island Natural Resources Management Area. Because of soil erosion, DNR officials report that too much polluting fertilizer and nitrogren washes into the bay. That in turn harms that oysters that live there. The presence of trees slows down that effect, so the prisoners are not only planting trees, they are planting marsh grasses and building oyster cages for habitat.

Across the country in the state of Washington, the Sustainability in Prisons Project operates as partnership between the Washington State Department of Corrections and The Evergreen State College. Its mission is to bring science and nature into prisons, intentionally placing offenders in natural settings. “We conduct ecological research and conservation biodiversity by forging collaborations with scientists, inmates, prison staff, students, and community partners. Equally important, we help reduce the environmental, economic, and human costs of prisons by inspiring and informing sustainable practices.”

They explain the union of people inside and outside prison in which “incarcerated men and women play key roles in conservation and advancing scientific knowledge.” They note that “teamwork, mutual respect and a stewardship ethic” are positive traits to develop in incarcerated individuals, as is using science and sustainability to develop these traits. Further, the organization strives to not only save tax dollars and resources, but “to help offenders rebuild their lives for the benefit of all.”

Sustainability in Prisons Project is currently focused on four prisons in southwest Washington. At Cedar Creek Corrections Center, initiatives include recycling, composting, organic gardening, a horticulture greenhouse, beekeeping, water catchment basins, low-flush toilets, and energy conservation. Field crews participate with the Department of Natural Resources for tree planting and wildland firefighting.

At Stafford Creek Corrections Center, some of these same programs are in place, in addition to water and energy conservation, motorless lawn mowing, the Bicycles from Heaven refurbishing program in collaboration with a local Lions Club, and a K-9 Rescue program to rehabilitate troubled dogs for adoption by families.

At the Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women, inmates have many options including to participate in a butterfly rehabilitation program. They raise rare butterflies from eggs to maturity, and eventual release in the prairies around the Lewis-McChord air base.

Meanwhile, inmates at the Washington Corrections Center for Women are cultivating endangered local animals, insects and plants. The Oregon spotted frog is one beneficiary of their work.

One stated goal of the Sustainable Prison Project is training inmates to enter the green workforce upon release. They identify these occupations as including carpenters who construct green buildings, weatherization specialists, installers of solar panels and wind turbines, ecological research assistants, organic farmers, beekeepers and more.

Washington has the most robust Sustainable Prison initiatives in the country. Its partner, Evergreen College, in Olympia, is ranked 38th in the Sierra Club’s list of greenest colleges. One of the founders of the Sustainable Prison Project is Nalini Nadkarni, now the director of the Center for Science and Math Education at the University of Utah. She was co-director of the program until 2011, when she went to Utah. She is now working with the Utah Department of Corrections to develop a similar program serving that state.

Indiana, Maryland, Washington, Utah: correctional departments in these states are on the leading edge of a national trend toward green and sustainable practices, encouraged by the national accrediting agency. Other states are doing this work too, strongly motivated by the desire to give inmates job skills upon their release. One of them is Virginia, where Tom Young is an engineer with the Department of Correction. He is part of an effort to provide green job training to offenders.

Young said Virginia has been active in supporting and funding energy conservation projects through treasury loans. The correctional department has used that funding to upgrade lighting, tighten water leaks and other conservation efforts at seven state prisons. The savings they’ve realized from energy efficiency has been put back into the facilities, to create spaces and procure equipment and technology required for various training programs. The inmates have the opportunity to learn “green HVAC technology,” among other skills.

Young said he graduated with an engineering degree “from a top 10 engineering school.” He compares the education he received there with the training the inmates in prison undergo in both the classroom and in the prison training program shops.

“I learned about all these systems both on the black board at school and after graduation on the job. It would have been terrific to have both of those components available to me in a classroom setting before graduation. We are pleased to provide that to these guys coming out of this program.”

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