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.



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