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Peter Hawksworth
By Peter Hawksworth on September 29, 2020

Sustainable Energy in Jails: A Guide for Green Corrections

Sustainable energy solutions for commercial buildings are growing worldwide. Correctional facilities within the United States are making an effort to switch to more sustainable practices, complying with LEED and EnergyStar’s guidelines for energy efficiency. 

Even small steps can result in huge savings. The current cost of running a correctional facility is approximately $31,000 per inmate, per year. In some states, it can be as high as $60,000.

The correctional facility system is large and complex in the United States. The Prison Policy Initiative reports that 2.3 million people currently reside in:

  • 1,833 state prisons
  • 110 federal prisons
  • 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities
  • 3,134 local jails
  • 218 immigration detention facilities
  • 80 Native American Country jails

That doesn’t include the populations of military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.

Additionally, close to 500,000 people currently work as corrections officers and many other employees and visitors are ultimately affected by conditions in correctional facilities.

With the largest incarceration rate in the world, the U.S. prison system has taken bold steps to apply sustainable practices, resulting in reduced costs and better mental and physical health for the people who live in jails -- and those who support and serve them.

Lights (for both indoor and outdoor areas), heat and cooling, energy for security and communications systems, water use, and energy use in dining spaces and medical facilities are all part of the expenses of running a correctional facility. Because of the nature of prison life, energy is used 24/7/365.

Prisons consume more energy than other types of commercial buildings. The average prison uses about 170 kBtu per square foot, office buildings use 148, and retail stores use 114.  

Even simple modifications can make a big difference.


The Benefits of Sustainability in Jails

Greening up prisons is a win-win-win situation for taxpayers, the environment, and society at large, not to mention the inmates themselves and others who spend significant amounts of time within the walls of a facility.” - GreenBiz

Cost savings is a tremendous benefit of sustainability in jails, but the impact of clean energy usage on the environment is also significant. If each of the jail categories listed above were to reduce waste by 10 percent, the impact would be huge. 

In addition, green buildings are healthier buildings. Although inmate comfort may not seem to be a high priority for most corrections facilities, environments that are well-lit, safe, and have clean air and appropriate temperature levels are better for everyone. Health issues can cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.

Green corrections facilities also create an opportunity for inmates to develop new skills. The number of green jobs in the U.S. is on the rise, so educating inmates on sustainability practices can help ensure they can find employment upon release.


Case Studies that Help You Succeed

If you’re considering greening a corrections facility, start with an energy audit so you have a baseline and can track your progress.

Look to examples of sustainability in jails that are similar to your facility and population.

Here are just a few powerful examples:

Washington State: An Educational Partnership 

The state worked with  The Evergreen State College to create a Sustainability in Prisons Project Handbook. Not only did they focus on cost savings, they brought nature inside with features like plants and fish tanks and created an education program within each facility.

One jail in that state achieved a 32 percent reduction in both energy and water use. They also used recycled and local materials in construction. 


California’s $3 million Savings

Projects across sixteen correctional facilities -- from LED lighting retrofits to laundry and kitchen equipment upgrades -- delivered $3 million annually in savings. 

The correctional system in California is the second largest energy consumer, so these moves have been significant -- beyond the prison walls. 


Bright Green: LEED-certified Prisons

The Central Health Services Building at California State Prison in Sacramento was a new build-out and achieved LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold status, reducing energy usage by almost 50 percent. LEED certification is a high standard of sustainability, based on specific actions and measures.

The Butner Federal prison in Butner, North Carolina qualified for LEED status in 2005 and now acts as a model for LEED education for other jails. This $98 million project even incorporated the use of green cleaning products in its operational improvements. 

Another Federal prison to qualify for LEED Gold status was the 540,000 square foot medium-security Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Hazelton, West Virginia. It serves as a great example of how architects who are fluent in both jail design and sustainable practices can develop a footprint that is both functional and cost-effective.


Sustainability Decreases Recidivism and Violence

Following incarceration, a  number of inmates will return to these facilities after their release, typically referred to as “jail churn” or recidivism

Exposure to nature reduces stress and anxiety. A whopping 80 percent of prisoners said they felt more relaxed after watching a video about nature. Biophilic design is becoming an important element of all commercial buildings. 

As noted earlier, sustainability education also opens doors to job opportunities upon release. In one facility, inmates grow organic produce, compost waste, and even use the prison’s own hives to make honey. 


Start by Looking Around and Up

Engage subject matter experts and choose areas of focus for embarking on a sustainability in jails effort. Use the many case studies to build a team that embraces your green initiative. Your employees, inmates, legislators, and community can be valuable champions.

Lighting (the conversion to LED lighting and the placement of motion sensors and dimmers)  is a relatively easy category to tackle first. Not only is it critically important to security and comfort, but utilizing a Lighting-as-a-Service (LaaS) model, your facility can accurately forecast month-to-month expenses. Plus, Future Energy Solutions (FES) will finance the entire cost of a conversion to LED lighting, meaning you don’t need to find money in the budget for this initiative. 

Cost savings, health, and a safer world are among the many benefits of green jails. You just need to start with some simple sustainable steps.


Get a free energy audit today. We have extensive experience in correctional facilities.

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Published by Peter Hawksworth September 29, 2020
Peter Hawksworth

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