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.



How Collaboration and Creative Approach Delivered a Jail for Half the Average Cost

The following blog post was originally published in the July/August issue of American Jails, the editorial magazine of the American Jail Association. The article expounds on the 2012 initiative to build a new jail for under $16 million. To help them tackle the challenge, the county engaged the team of J.E.Dunn, Hussey Gay Bell, and Rosser International, Inc. to join the jail planning team of county administrators and the Sheriff’s Office.

Is it possible to deliver 328 beds and a Sheriff’s Office for $16 million in the uncertain economic market of 2012?

The leadership of Effingham County, a small progressive county just north of Savannah, Georgia, thought so when they initiated a program to build a new jail. That’s a number just north of $48,000 per bed. When costs per bed across the country are currently ranging from $80,000 to $100,000 per bed, how is this possible? The answer: adaptive reuse. Okay, but what is adaptive reuse? Simply put, it is finding a way to reuse or repurpose existing buildings at a much lower cost than building new ones. This was the challenge faced by Effingham County.  Two possibilities for adaptive reuse immediately came to mind. One possibility was an abandoned school property that had fallen into disuse. The property containing the existing jail, a building long past its useful life, was another.

In 2011, Effingham County engaged the team of J.E.Dunn, Hussey Gay Bell, and Rosser International, Inc. to join the jail planning team of county administrators and the Sheriff’s Office to help them tackle this problem. The team evaluated both possibilities in detail.  The condition of existing buildings, required site improvements and the impact on the surrounding neighborhoods were among the issues carefully weighed against the aggressive budget.  The existing jail property came out on top.

Planning, design and costing followed. But even with the reuse of the existing jail it became apparent that this was not going to be enough space to meet the objective. At that point the planning team came up with an inventive idea. There is a county-owned prison next door to the existing jail that is not fully utilized. It is in good condition and currently in operation. Why not use a portion of that facility? Great idea — but immediately a number of challenges became apparent. One challenge was the physical connection. The existing jail and the prison are not physically adjacent and not even very close together. The two buildings would need to be connected for security. Another challenge was food service. Part of the reuse of the prison idea that made it economically attractive involved not only reusing existing beds but also reusing the existing prison kitchen to feed both the prison and the new jail populations. And yet another challenge involved inmate management. Both prison and jail inmates would need to be managed by the same staff, or at least combined staff working from the same location. These challenges begged a number of questions.  Could an efficient, economically feasible connection from jail to prison be devised? Could a renovation of the existing kitchen be accomplished inside the project budget? And how could jail inmates be effectively managed in a prison environment?

Rosser and Hussey Gay Bell came up with a solution to the connection and kitchen cost challenges. And the Sheriff’s Office came up with a solution to inmate management. To address the connection problem, a portion of the existing jail would be repurposed as the Sheriff’s Office. A new building containing intake, medical and housing would be located between the existing jail and the prison. In this way, the new building would be in a central location convenient to both the new Sheriff’s Office and the prison, shortening the circulation path between them. Since the new building had to be built in any case this location would serve as a natural “bridge” between the exiting jail and the prison, eliminating the need for an additional long and expensive connecting corridor. To address the kitchen problem, existing kitchen equipment was reused with the limited addition of new equipment so that the cost of the renovation of the prison kitchen would be less than the cost to build a new kitchen in the jail. The reuse of existing kitchen equipment also made possible the continued food service to entities outside the jail, protecting that revenue source for the county. The Sheriff’s Office collaborated with the prison staff to solve the co-responsibility of jail and prison inmate management by locating the lower risk classification jail inmates in the prison dorms and working out staffing shifts between jail and prison staff.

So at this point the project was on its way and in budget, right? Not quite. Even with these creative ideas in place the project was still over budget. Are there any construction related ideas that might save money but achieve the same result? J. E. Dunn offered an interesting one. Inmate cells are often built in the factory and shipped to the site. The cells are made of concrete which is cast in reusable molds. But usually the molds are custom built for each project. This approach has proven to save time and cost but the molds are still a large part of the manufacturing cost. J. E. Dunn already had anticipated using cells constructed in this way as part of their cost control strategy but they came up with a new wrinkle. Why not collaborate with the cell manufacturer to reuse molds that were used on another project? This would save considerable cost in production. But it also would require that the design strictly conform to the cell dimensions of the donor project. Rosser and Hussey Gay Bell found a way to make this work by designing a special grouping of the cells. Another creative and money saving construction alternative approach was offered by J. E. Dunn. The solution was a unique way of building security and structural walls called “tilt up construction.” In tilt up construction, concrete walls are formed and poured lying directly on the ground rather than being poured into formwork erected vertically. The ground is actually the formwork is this case. When the concrete hardens, the walls are tilted up into final vertical position. This method saves considerable time because it alleviates the need for formwork. J. E. Dunn estimates that this method helped to shave over two and one-half months off the construction schedule. And in the construction industry time is money. The longer the construction professional is on the site the more it costs for project overhead. So, two and one-half months of project overhead was saved and applied directly to the budget bottom line.

Almost there…but still not quite. The cost of constructing the new building and the prison renovation was covered by the budget at this point, but not the cost to repurpose the existing jail into a Sheriff’s Office. Were there any creative budget management ideas that might get us there? The Effingham County’s administration team leadership and J. E. Dunn suggested this one. From the beginning the project budget contained a contingency to cover unforeseen issues that might arise during construction.  This is normal but it is not always needed. Is it possible to move ahead with the construction of the new building and prison renovation and put the existing jail’s repurposing portion of the project in abeyance for future construction using contingency funds? That approach was adopted and it worked. The design, construction, and jail planning team worked hard during the construction period to conserve these funds, and at the end there were remaining funds sufficient to complete the project.

So what is the big take away in this story? Can everyone use the examples discussed here? Maybe not. But the take away is that jails, even small ones, can be built for seemingly impossibly small budgets when there is a willingness to look at alternative approaches with an openness to explore new ideas by a highly collaborative team.

William (Buddy) H. Golson, AIA, is a Vice President at Rosser International, Inc. and has designed and managed more than $2 billion worth of criminal justice facilities in the United States, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and Canada. He is known for his ability to design operationally efficient and value conscious jails and prisons. Mr. Golson’s projects have been recognized for design excellence by the American Institute of Architects and he currently serves on the Facility Design Committee of the American Correctional Association. He can be reached at