The Greening of Correctional Facilities

Sustainability provides big cost savings. 

Even small changes toward sustainability in prisons and jails add up to substantial savings in the long run. Sustainable practices also help limit negative environmental impacts on the communities where the facilities are located. What makes sustainability in correctional facilities even more practical are all the unexpected benefits that flow from this approach.

At Rosser, we pay a lot of attention to sustainability issues and try to incorporate every aspect of LEED into new facility design. Despite the many positives associated with the greening of correctional facilities, the cold, hard reality is that two main barriers come into play: 

  • The upfront extra costs required to make a project sustainable or make sustainable changes when local politicians in charge of the budgets are loath to spend money on anything that would improve a prison environment.
  • The challenge of upgrading an existing facility that is in operation seven days a week, 365 days a year and is typically 80% – 150% occupied.


Correctional facilities never close, and on top of that, the people who live there don’t want to be there, so they have little incentive to help maintain the facility. In that harsh environment, these buildings age quickly. 

One of the best examples of implementing green initiatives is in the Washington State Department of Corrections (WSDC). It’s an interesting story. Officials wanted to expand one of their existing facilities where they knew their sewage system couldn’t handle the increased effluent. So they looked at what they could do to decrease the waste coming through the system. They discovered that their sewage system was clogged by a tremendous amount of food waste. 
The solution was simple. They eliminated the food waste from the sanitation stream and started making compost. Next they bought a machine that formed the compost into biodegradable flowerpots. From there, the inmates started growing plants.

Being green provided a learning experience for the inmates. That solution led them into green sustainability, and now WSDC has formed a strong partnership with Evergreen State College and has developed dozens of green solutions that have saved the state millions of dollars. Inmates have even been involved in projects like habitat restoration that save endangered frogs. 

In municipalities across the United States, wastewater management presents a challenge. In California’s Santa Barbara Northern Branch Jail, we implemented the spirit of LEED requirements with LEED compliant upgraded mechanical systems. As an initial solution to reduce the amount of municipal water use, the jail sends its wastewater to Laguna Sanitation for treatment in a standard fashion. Laguna Sanitation then returns the cleaned sewerage as clean, non-potable water to the facility to be used for irrigation, laundry and fire protection. 

The state of Alabama has upgraded several of its facilities and gotten energy efficient mechanical systems through energy service contracting. Several states allow institutions the opportunity to change outdated, energy guzzling units with newer, more efficient models. The cost of these upgrades is paid for by the substantial savings in energy costs. Those policies give people an opportunity to be green and find a way to pay for it with the savings.

The opportunities are there if you look for them. When you lock inmates up in a small room where the only thing they have to play with is the toilet, you are likely to have a big water management problem. By installing electronic controls on how often a toilet can be flushed in one day in a 700-bed prison, you can reduce water usage by 40%-60%. If you are delivering half of the effluent to the local water treatment system, that one change generates a huge cost savings.

Another method is switching to prison-grade LED lights; lights that will be good for 20 years. Although they add a 10% premium upfront versus florescent lighting, you more than make up for that initial cost in savings. Plus, you eliminate the need to have to relocate prisoners annually while the bulbs are replaced in a cell. Studies have also shown that LED lighting improves the quality of life for the inmates, because it eliminates the annoying buzzing from the overhead fluorescent lights as well as the problem of disposal since the florescent tubes are hazardous materials.

Our founder, Paul Rosser, believed in providing a more humane environment for people, because how you treat people is how they act. I would like for people who run correctional facilities to go through a paradigm shift where they are thinking about bigger issues rather than keeping inmates from getting out. I want them to consider how their facilities interact with the communities around them and how the environment affects the behaviors and attitudes of those incarcerated there. Maintenance and operations is a huge chunk of the budget. If you aren’t spending your budget on water and find cost savings by taking a green approach, that’s money you can spend on better programming for inmates and more corrections officers. That’s a win-win.


mark_vanallen.pngMark R. Van Allen, Vice President and Director of Rosser’s Justice Group, is a national thought leader on modern correctional facilities. Click here to learn more about Rosser’s Justice Design group and our delivery of modern correctional facility designs that support sustainability.



Rethinking Correctional Facility Design

The shift in focus to rehabilitation rather than warehousing prisoners sparks changes in facilities.

In Shawshank Redemption Morgan Freeman’s character finally gets out after 30 years in prison and finds a job stocking shelves at the local grocery store. In a poignant scene, when the store manager tells him he doesn’t need permission to go to the restroom, Freeman’s character replies, “I almost can’t go unless somebody tells me it’s okay to take a piss.”

Although we call our prisons and jails “correctional facilities” historically they’ve been designed for punishment. When an inmate is released, that person is dumped back into the community with no training or behavioral modifications attempted. We expect that the incarcerated will magically change once released. Our firm’s founder, Paul Rosser, was keenly interested in social justice and this disparity in expectation and reality.

Friends with Andrew Young, Rosser supported the Civil Rights movement. In his professional life he saw an opportunity to engage in thoughtfully designing more normative environments that would provide humane housing rather than simply locking inmates up and warehousing them. I’m honored to lead our Criminal Justice Group and carry on this important work. In most communities across the United States, crime and arrests are down. The growth curve is flattening. We’re no longer in an arms race, fueled by the war on drugs, to see who can build the most beds for the least amount of money like we were throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Now that we’re done with that era, facility managers are beginning to ask the question: What are we really doing with this facility?

Kalamazoo exterior2

With the push for rehabilitation and the reduction of recidivism, forward-thinking correctional facility managers are proactively finding ways to support the twin missions. This is especially a crisis point among juvenile justice facilities where costs for housing young people are shockingly high in many parts of the country.

Direct Supervision

I recently met with the manager of the Jackson, TN, jail. He’s probably my age and has been in corrections his entire career, ever since the thinking was centered on “lock ’em up and keep ’em in.” He has attended National Institute of Corrections meetings on Planning of New Institutions (PONI) focusing on the reduction of recidivism. His eyes have been opened to the opportunities afforded by direct supervision, which is a tremendous boon to the correctional industry.

For the longest time, we put prisoners behind bars and correctional officers were in the control tower or interacted with their charges via intercom or from behind attack-resistant glass.

The new thought gives correctional officers the opportunity to correct inmates’ behavior by making them the leaders of the housing units and having them live among the prisoners. Some old school officers resist this new model, but those who embrace it are finding it works well.

Kalamazoo County Juvenile Center in Michigan engaged me to implement direct supervision. We normalized the living environment, so that it no longer felt like kiddie jail. We designed large, normal-looking windows fronting on courtyards, a teaching kitchen, a shop, and music and science classrooms. It’s an award-winning facility providing a wide-range of services, including an alternative school, day reporting and after-school programming.

Specialty Housing and Services

In Dearborn County, Indiana – an affluent community where more and more people were going through the county criminal system due to drugs and alcohol – we designed specialty housing units to support the Jail Chemical Addiction Program. Offenders have to apply to get into the program. Those accepted are housed in a dormitory with nicer floor coverings, better furnishings and more opportunities for recreation. The counseling rooms are adjacent to the communal living and recreation area, which provide for an intensive counseling environment while still providing a feeling of community with the other participants in the program. We used high-efficiency windows in the step-down housing units to allow more light in. The day rooms have loose tables, chairs, and a television with plenty of spaces to encourage social interaction. The addition of the specialty housing resulted in the overall doubling of their jail space, allowing them to leverage their new space for a greater purpose than simply warehousing inmates.


In Hamilton County, Indiana, an upscale community, there were a lot of people getting locked up for not being able to control their drug and alcohol addictions. Company executives were getting DUIs along with soccer moms who had too much wine at book club or were hooked on prescription drugs. Rather than lock them up for nine months in a 7-by-10 ft. cell and expect them not to do it again, community leaders wanted to make an investment to change the behaviors getting people into trouble. When all was said and done, the county spent about $46 million on 200 alternative incarceration beds, a mental health unit, and better intake with the goal of getting those eligible into diversion programs pre-trial. Despite the substantial investment, not a single traditional “lock ‘em up” bed was constructed.

In Eastman, Georgia, we are working with a juvenile justice housing unit that was built in the 1980s. We’re adding a behavior modification unit with classrooms, a training kitchen and counseling offices. Investing in teaching those incarcerated skills and giving them the support they need to be productive when they rejoin their communities makes so much more sense than warehousing. That’s justice served.

Mark Van Allen

Mark Van Allen

Mark R. Van Allen, Vice President and Director of Rosser’s Justice Group, is a national thought leader on modern correctional facilities. Click here to learn more about Rosser’s Justice Design group and our delivery of modern correctional facility designs that support rehabilitation and reduce recidivism.

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