Resource Hogs: Greening Prison Infrastructure

Prisons are perhaps the most resource-intensive institutional infrastructures. This is largely a function of the unique nature of the building typology, which requires continuous operation, high levels of lighting (for security) and water consumption (for the inmates). Moreover, prison cells that contain toilet fixtures are required to have exhaust venting, increasing heating and cooling loads and costs. With the number of prisons on the rise in the US, new green initiatives are being explored to offset these resource hogs.

Take, for instance, Cedar Creek Corrections Center (CCCC), located close to Olympia in Washington State. A couple of years ago, Cedar Creek set up a “Green Work” program, wherein inmates grow produce, compost and recycle waste, and harvest honey. They have also established a research venture with Evergreen State College, entitled the Sustainable Prisons Project. Cedar Creek (and prisons in general) provide an ideal environment to measure energy and food inputs and outputs due to the stability of the population. Further, the inmates are educated in green practices and gain job skills, equipping them to be part of the next generation of ‘green-collared’ workers.

Cedar Creek’s organic garden, recycling program, composting, beehive facility and water catchment tanks have impressive measurable figures; 15000 pounds of organic food was produced last year alone, while 2000 pounds of food was composted. Further, over 250 000 gallons of water was saved. The economic savings from landfill, water and food costs totaled $34,333 USD, or approximately $85.83 per inmate per annum. This has saved Washington State taxpayers $1.5 million dollars per year and allowed, in theory, money to be transferred to other social programs. Further, it has inspired the retrofitting of 34 facilities in Washington State to gain LEED certification.

Washington State is joined by several other states within in the US who see the economic and environmental benefits of greening their prisons. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced a plan in October 2008 to retrofit 16 prisons. This is estimated to save $3 million per year, 25 million kilowatt hours and 650,000 therms of energy. This is equivalent to removing 3,770 cars from the road. Moreover, six prisons are slated to house massive solar fields. Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, California has already installed 6,200 solar panels, which produces extra energy that is fed into the grid, providing enough energy to power over 4,100 homes per year. The Putnamville Correctional Facility in Indiana boasts a biomass boiler, saving approximately $6,300 in gas bills a day. A wind turbine in another Indiana facilities produces about 10 kilowatts per hour, saving the prison $2,280 a year. Similar initiatives are starting to occur in North Carolina, Virginia and Norway.


While the United States comprise less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses a quarter of the world’s prisoners. According to data from the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College, London, the United States has approximately 2.3 million prisoners. Greening all the prisons in the United States could create savings of up to $196 million per year. While the number of prisons in the United States is both controversial and in dire need of questioning, the greening prison programs not only equips inmates with new green-collared skills, it allows for a deeper connection with nature and a more sustainable method of rehabilitation. While this is largely economically driven, the saved money can be placed into other sustainable infrastructures, while these prisons yield research that can benefit the general populace.

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