American penitentiaries emphasize the need for sustainability

prison cells
CC BY 2.0 miss_millions

There are as many as 2.4 million individuals locked up in American state prisons, federal penitentiaries, local jails, and juvenile institutions. That’s equivalent to the entire population of Houston, plus another 300,000. Every hour of every day, these overcrowded prisons and jails are stretching resources, straining generators, and providing housing for a city-sized population of incarcerated individuals, turning the prison system into a veritable sustainability black hole. Considering there are thousands of state prisons and over a hundred federal penitentiaries, the need for comprehensive sustainability strategies couldn’t be clearer.

That’s exactly why the Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) was organized in 2004. The partnership between the Washington State Department of Corrections and The Evergreen State College helps prisons develop and implement sustainability initiatives and education programs for staff and inmates. Resource conservation, gardening, composting and recycling are just a few of the strategies the SPP helps prisons integrate into their daily operations. According to the SPP, these techniques have already helped save $4.3 million in Washington. While initially operating only in Washington, the Sustainability in Prisons Network is fast becoming a national venture.

Enter the Oregon Department of Corrections. A recent addition to the SPP Network, the Oregon DOC has for several years now been a leading example of sustainability across all 14 of its penitentiaries. Aside from planting gardens and conserving water and energy, the crown jewel of its strategies is an extensive recycling system that recently won it the title “Recycler of the Year” at the Mid-Valley Green Awards in Oregon. At a central recycling facility, everything from lead, shrink wrap, fluorescent light bulbs and even bullet-proof vests are collected and recycled.

With TerraCycle’s help, the Oregon DOC is also able to collect and recycle typically non-recyclable waste. Through one of TerraCycle’s free Brigade programs, the department has collected more than 1,300 pounds of bags, diverting a huge chunk of waste from local ecosystems and landfills. It even generates points for each unit of waste sent to TerraCycle, which are being turned into cash donations to local schools around Oregon. The department takes responsibility for its own waste, saves resources, and benefits local communities in the process.

Jody Davis/CC BY 1.0

Outside the U.S., some prisons are taking the ‘green’ approach to an entirely new level. Norway, for example, is home to the first “ecological prison” in the world: the Bastøy Prison. The facility is located on a beautiful island near Oslo and is home to over 100 minimum-security prisoners. Prisoners are allowed to live unrestrained in unlocked houses, while being left responsible for the island’s many chickens, sheep, cows and crops. They clean up waste from the nearby beach, pick fresh vegetables, fish on a boat provided by the prison, and even get heat from wood and power from solar energy.

While it may seem like an idealized utopia compared to the concrete penitentiaries peppering the United States, some domestic prisons are actively getting inmates involved with green practices. The Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Littlerock, Washington allows prisoners to work in the facility’s apiary and gardens; inmates at the Jessamine County Detention Center in Kentucky can plant and pick crops in fields owned by the prison year-round; the Airway Heights Corrections Center in Washington generates tens of thousands of pounds of produce, all grown by inmates.

It remains to be seen whether or not practices like these will ever be integrated on a wider scale throughout the American prison system. Even so, the need to crack down on sustainability only gets more apparent as the U.S. continues to struggle with its severe, resource-thinning prison overcrowding issues. But before those problems abate, we’ll need to rely on organizations like the Sustainability in Prisons Project to share expertise, strategies, and tangible sustainable practices with correctional facilities nationwide.

Tags: Farming | Green Building | Norway

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