There are a multitude of environmental challenges facing the correctional industry today. I am often asked why correctional facilities are behind the curve on the sustainability movement and if the challenges of pursuing LEED certification for existing facilities cannot be overcome. These are very tough questions requiring complex solutions and cause me many nights of tossing and turning.
I’ll be the first to admit the corrections industry is somewhat behind the curve. From the early 20th century through the mid-1980s, most jail and prison designs were based on the level of custody desired. In the late ‘80s and into the 21st century, jail and prison design started to consider sustainability as an added value to security and maintainability.
There is no disagreement that while we may have started late, the industry is gathering momentum in the greening of our facilities. Since 2005, there have been several sustainable facilities brought on line. We know how to design, construct and operate new sustainable and secure facilities.
The challenge facing our industry today is the greening of some or all of our jails and prisons in operation. There are currently plans under way for environmentally friendly renovations at major facilities. There are two huge hurdles to overcome prior to undertaking these programs: operational integrity and funding. Maintaining operational integrity is probably a simpler issue to resolve. The challenge will be finding cash to change a clunker into a hybrid.
There are a significant number of reasons to green our correctional facilities, one being our global climate. In November, former vice president Al Gore welcomed more than 20,000 building and environmental professionals to Phoenix for the annual Greenbuild conference, the largest green building conference in the United States.
“You [the audience] all are leading this charge for a sustainable future,” Gore told the crowd. He also emphasized the role that individuals can play in driving the green build movement by pressing lawmakers to adopt climate change legislation currently in the U.S. Senate and by signaling that the country “must do the right thing.”
There were more than 300 criminal justice professionals and agency representatives in attendance, demonstrating to the industry that we are doing the right thing.
The American Corrections Association must continue to be our larger voice in the sustainability movement. The ACA already has several policy statements, which support doing the right thing. The ACA Public Policy on Conditions of Confinement clearly addresses sustaining safe, secure and constitutionally acceptable conditions of confinement that require the efficient use of resources and the effective management of the physical plant. The greening our existing secure facilities will provide an environment that will support the policy and ensure the health and safety of staff, volunteers and confined persons. The CMAA, the AIA and other professional design and construction associations believe green environments result from appropriate design, construction and maintenance of the physical plant as well as the effective and efficient operation of the facility.
ACA policy extends a similar philosophy incorporating the provision of appropriate services for offenders. What can be more appropriate than providing a sustainable secure environment?
Preparing to make significant contributions toward sustaining our environment will take strategic planning. Many economists have said for a reinvestment and recovery program to be effective, every component of society should benefit. This benefit must not exclude those in the criminal justice system. Looking deeper into the greening of existing facilities, the ACA also has a policy statement that applies to correctional industry programs, using programs that replicate the private sector as closely as possible and promoting career development and employment opportunities that allow for self-sufficiency upon prisoner re-entry.
Green industry jobs are becoming more plentiful, and using inmate labor to make green improvements may yield an additional benefit in that it trains the inmate for a viable and marketable workplace skill upon re-entry.
An Economic Metric
Generally when the design or construction management professional speaks about sustainability, we’re usually referring to a lifecycle view — whether things are going into the environment as part of the waste stream or whether they’re coming back and being reused.
Sustainability is a measurable economic metric. When you green a facility, you lower your operational costs and you lower your emissions. Sustainability is also a continuing economic development that meets environmental and social concerns.
A sustainable operational philosophy will train staff to take advantage of the facility’s sustainable opportunities once they are in place. It’s a challenge to make sustainability concepts operational. We can start slow and be deliberate, but we have to start.
At first, there will certainly be hesitation due to the lack of evidence and metrics, best practices and lessons learned. To the director, any lowering of operational costs will be the great benefit, and down among the facility staff who actually live with the choices and do the work of change, there will be resistance because of uncertainty.
You can get into trouble making vague ideas operational and, absent regulations, many times there’s no clear metric on what is possible based on a facilities operational philosophy. Secure facility rules are hard and fast. With sustainability it’s even harder to establish a program without paradigms.
Looking at the lifecycle of a correctional facility, including all processes and substances, is a huge task, but not an impossible one. What keeps me up at night is developing new ways to proceed and new ideas for operational savings that will never use lowering security as a trade-off.
Water and Electricity
Water is going to be a major component in our quest toward sustainability. If the growth of a secure population continues, it will be our potable water supply and waste water treatment that will provide multiple opportunities for minimizing our carbon footprint on the environment.
We know how to clean water and harvest rainwater, and we have water-saving treatment technology that can allow for reuse and will provide immediate metrics for society and the elected officials.
We can find ways to tackle our water usage issues without compromising security. Blackwater treatment systems consume a large amount of energy. By reducing the amount of water going to the treatment plants, we can save electricity. Many of our planners will use a metric of about 75 to 100 gallons of potable water per day per inmate. If we can reduce the amount of water used and divert wastewater, we can operate a greener facility.
We can also look at our current operations and perform a systems recommissioning of HVAC and water systems to reduce energy waste. Federal buildings are installing photovoltaic systems on existing roofs, or roof mounted wind turbines to generate green power in order to reduce the dependence on outside energy sources.
There are blackwater treatment strategies to recover methane gas from human waste that can be used for heating, tempering water or even cooking. Off-hours operation strategies like overnight chiller-generated ice storage for cooling, redistribution of kitchen and laundry heat for heating, and perhaps many more concepts and ideas that can be accomplished while a facility is operational.
Many of these concepts can be done outside the fence or away from inmate-accessible areas. Some, like the installation of roof-mounted PV systems, can be accomplished with inmate labor — great training for future employment after release.
What keeps me up at night is the realization that saving and protecting our environment and natural resources are problems of economics and policy. A distraction toward achieving our mission will be a focus on solving our current economic crisis. The right thing to do is for our industry to work together. Together, if we can figure these problems out, I can get a good night’s sleep.
Gregory J. Offner, CCM, is vice president of AECOM Design in Arlington, Va. He is a member of the Correctional News Editorial Advisory Board.