Greening Corrections Impacts More Than the Environment

On the field of sport, there are always winners and losers. But in the field of “green corrections,” the triple winners of saving money, developing inmate job skills and helping the environment drive administrators’ interest.

Since the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center System published Greening Corrections Technology Guidebook in February 2012 (, interest in the topic has increased to the point that at least half of all states have a form of sustainability plan and a sustainability manager. Most states have started recycling programs, and facilities with alternate or transitional energy programs, such as using solar panels or vehicles powered by natural gas, are on the increase. The Sustainability Oriented and Environmentally Responsible Practices in Corrections Committee is the largest active national committee of the American Correctional Association (ACA), according to Paul Sheldon, consultant and guidebook co-author.

“Cost savings are driving everything — lighting upgrades, recycling, trash, materials flow, reducing toxics, composters, food dehydrators to reduce pulp waste — all of the things that reach payback in a short time,” Sheldon says. “And as part of bid specifications, many states are requiring the use of inmate workers, which incorporates a job-training component.”

Some states incorporate that job-readiness training through the Roots of Success Program (, and Ohio has strong anecdotal evidence that inmates who participate in Roots of Success, literacy training and faith-based programs have reduced rates of recidivism, Sheldon says.

“Going forward, one of the best ways to promote sustainability is tying job skills to re-entry employment,” says Tommy Norris, chair of the ACA Sustainability Committee and moderator of the GreenPrisons website (, a not-for-profit education tool that provides news on sustainable projects in corrections, training and technical assistance, and a networking forum. “For example, one Ohio facility did a large thermal installation with inmate crews, and the contractor was so impressed with the work of two inmates in particular that he wrote formal job offers they could present to the parole board. These projects teach skills that are really transferable on re-entry.” (See a related article, “Inmates Dismantle Prison — With Administration Approval,” on a deconstruction project in Maryland.)

“As budgeting becomes more and more of an issue, correctional facilities tend to go for the low-hanging fruit like recycling. When it comes to more mid-range projects, administrators can see the benefits but finding the funding is a challenge,” Norris adds. “Most agencies can only implement larger projects through an ESPC, and the challenge there is the ESCO looks at projects that have the highest return for the lowest upfront cost.”

An energy savings performance contract, or ESPC, is a model where an energy services company, or ESCO, covers the upfront cost to achieve energy savings at a property or portfolio of properties as a service. This model guarantees savings for a set period of time in exchange for payment from the energy cost savings. An ESCO will assess the efficiency opportunity, purchase equipment necessary to improve performance and install the equipment. Most ESCOs will provide a financing option for these services as well, but depending on the ESCO, the building owner may be required to seek outside financing. (Definition from the U.S. Department of Energy,

In spite of all the challenges, with funding being the most significant, the progress made since the publication of the guidebook gives those working in the field many reasons to be optimistic. That same seven-year time span has seen several types of projects that were futuristic at the time of publication, such as aquaponics, become much more commonly used in the field, Sheldon says.

“At least six states now invest in combined water purification, fish farming and vegetable growing in the same facility,” Sheldon says. “Another innovative type of project is evacuated tube solar-powered hot water. As far as I know, all solar panel projects in the past few years have used this method, which is 20 to 80 percent more efficient, depending on the climate since they’re much more efficient and cost-effective in climates with colder weather. There have also been a lot of conversions to the transitional technology of using natural gas-powered vehicles, and LED lighting has improved to the point where it’s practical for use on high-post exterior and parking lot lighting. LED is particularly effective in corrections because it doesn’t reflect as much off airborne dust particles and thus penetrates shadows more effectively. LEDs also illuminate a fraction of a second faster, and when you’re talking about crisis situations, that’s a significant difference, especially if the lights are on an automatic sensor or timer.”

In addition to more widespread adoption of innovative practices such as these, Sheldon says there is also greater awareness of the importance of not using toxic, caustic or flammable materials, but rather using more green and sustainable methods of cleaning, painting and finishing. Norris says current ACA Sustainability Committee efforts focus on awareness of that concept, along with promoting recognition for the innovative and uniquely effective programs implemented in facilities around the country: “It’s not that their administrators are in it for the recognition, but that recognition lets other facilities around the country learn about what they’re doing. That helps the movement grow and it’s a critical piece.”

Assistance with that recognition also comes from the National Institute of Corrections, which houses a library of sustainability submissions from the field at ACA standards and policies also help lead the corrections community, Sheldon says, through presentations to groups such as the American Jail Association, the North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents, the Construction Management Institute for Criminal Justice Agencies, the Correctional Accreditation Managers Association, and numerous regional groups and associations. In addition to giving presentations, the Sustainability Committee also is working to integrate additional sustainability requirements into the ACA accreditation process. Also, GreenPrisons offers a “clipboard checklist” based on the guidebook that administrators can use to do a sustainability walkthrough of their facilities.

For more information, contact Paul Sheldon at or Tommy Norris at

Article photo: l i g h t p o e t/Shutterstock