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Bringing Sustainability to Correctional Facilities
By Stephen P. Ashkin
Published: 12/21/2015

Prison guard tower
Many people believe the words “sustainable” and “sustainability” refer to a definition adopted by the United Nations in 1987. According to that definition, sustainability means “meeting the needs of the present [generation] without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

But that is just one part of sustainability. Today it refers to three things, often called the “three pillars” of sustainability:
  • “Environment” encompasses the 1987 definition of sustainability.
  • “Social” is the people pillar of sustainability. The focus here is on social equity and human resources. In a correctional facility, it could apply to paying prison staff fair living wages, taking staff safety seriously and providing the safest possible working conditions, implementing nondiscriminatory hiring practices, allowing for worker advancement, offering health insurance, etc.
  • The economic pillar is best understood related to a sustainable business. Of course a business should make a fair and reasonable profit—that is why it is in business—and it should also implement programs that reduce costs and improve efficiencies. And, taking a broader perspective, profit also can include economic benefits and giving back to a community.
Looking at these three pillars, it is relatively easy to see how a business would be sustainable. For instance, it would use natural resources efficiently and responsibly, provide adequately for its workers, and work to be more economically profitable and efficient. But how could this apply to a correctional facility and specifically to the inmates in the facility?

There are ways to implement a three-pillar sustainability program in a correctional facility and for inmates. The following offers a sample of possibilities.

Pillar One: Environment

Focusing on the environment involves, among other things, using energy, water, and fuel more efficiently. And this goes beyond temporary conservation. For example, if a facility is located in California and has been asked to reduce water consumption by 25 percent temporarily, that would be an example of water conservation. But if a facility is directed to reduce water consumption by 25 percent permanently, that would require water efficiency.

Although this pillar may be easy to understand, in a correctional facility it may be the most difficult to implement. Typically, to make water-using fixtures and mechanicals more efficient and to reduce energy and fuel consumption, new products, equipment, and vehicles must be purchased. And while there are many Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)–certified prisons in the United States, with the tight budgets most correctional facilities are subject to, making the necessary changes and purchases to become more efficient may be out of the question.

So what can be done? First, an inexpensive option is to install aerators in all faucets and showerheads. An example of their effectiveness: A traditional faucet can use more than 2.5 gallons of water per minute. This can be reduced to 0.5 gallons per minute with an aerator installed.

A bigger undertaking—but one that will have significant impact—is to complete an in-house energy audit. In thousands of facilities in the United States, all kinds of electronic devices—including lights, heating, and air-conditioning—are left on 24/7. While correctional facilities are 24/7 facilities, an in-house audit can still locate energy-using devices that can be turned off at the end of a work shift or during blocks of time during the day.

Pillar Two: Social

Populations in correctional facilities are unique. They can vary tremendously, and we really cannot compare them to any other social environment. Some locations are tense—even explosive; others may be surprisingly peaceful. One way a correctional facility can implement the social pillar of sustainability is to provide as safe an environment as possible for staff and inmates, including offering training, trade, and educational programs. Training in a skill is the first step to turning an incarcerated adult into a contributing member of society.

Pillar Three: Economic

The economic pillar specifically for inmates can be a bit more complicated in a correctional environment; however, there are options. For instance, some correctional facilities such as federal prisons now have vocational training and work programs that allow inmates to earn “performance pay”.

The goal of such a program is that it can “reduce inmate idleness and allows the inmate to develop useful job skills, work habits, and experiences that will assist in post-release employment.” [1]

As effective training programs develop economic independence skills in the prison population, inmates build marketable skills and an understanding that their work can make a valuable contribution. In other words, the economic benefit is for everyone: society as a whole benefit as the former inmate, equipped with the tools to move forward, is restored to a position as a contributing member of society.

As the expanded view of sustainability becomes better understood by all members of society, we can expect it to spread to more businesses, organizations, and facilities, including correctional facilities. And in correctional facilities specifically, the hope is that implementing these three pillars of sustainability can change lives for the better for facility workers and scores of incarcerated adults.

[1] Inmate Work and Performance Pay, Program Statement Number 5251.06; October 1, 2008.

Stephen P. Ashkin is founder of the Green Cleaning Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating building owners and suppliers about Green Cleaning and sustainability, and president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in Greening the cleaning industry and promoting sustainability. Considered the “father of Green Cleaning,” Ashkin is also on the Board of the Green Sports Alliance, and has been inducted into the International Green Industry Hall of Fame (IGIHOF).


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