Barbwire and chain-link fence with the sun shining in the background.

Summary

  • Prisons need to become more eco-friendly to help nations meet their net-zero targets. This has resulted in many counties, such as the United Kingdom, providing funding to facilitate environmental improvements.
  • Mass incarceration has severe environmental health implications that affect prisoners directly, but some prisons can also become sources of pollution—affecting nearby communities and ecosystems. The most apparent impacts have been on the United States due to its vast incarceration numbers.
  • Over the past five years, United States agencies have issued 132 informal actions and 28 formal actions against prisons and jails under the Clean Water Act. There were also 92 informal actions and 51 formal actions made against prisons, jails and detention centres across the US as part of the Clean Air Act.
  • Prisons are now fitted with solar power, smart lighting systems, recycling facilities, and other sustainability programmes. There are already a handful of eco-prisons located worldwide, and they are used as green examples for the future of prison industries.

Introduction

When prisons are concerned, most of us imagine large concrete buildings surrounded by barbed wire, chain-link fences, floodlights and extensive alarm systems. They are often depicted in popular media as places where people are faced with unhealthy living conditions. Some prisons are indeed better than others, and the living conditions significantly vary depending on location.

The impact mass incarnation has on the people living within the prison systems has long been known. However, now the effect it can have on the surrounding natural environment is finally being addressed. With the world striving to reduce carbon gas emissions, many nations are finding ways to make positive changes wherever they can—including eco-friendly prisons.

Many nations have passed laws to end their contribution to global warming by 2050. However, to achieve this target, most will need to bring all greenhouse gas emissions down to net-zero by 2050. This article looks into the ways mass incarceration impacts the environment and how zero-carbon prisons can help us get a little closer to that critical net-zero target.

The Environmental Impact of Mass Incarceration

Prisons all over America, from Virginia to Washington State, have been caught violating point source pollution regulations under state and federal water laws and falsifying water pollution reports.

Illustration of the effects air pollution has on the human body.

Although mass incarceration has severe environmental health implications that affect prisoners directly, prisons can also become a source of pollution for nearby communities and ecosystems. The most prevalent impacts can be seen in the United States due to its record-breaking incarceration rate.

The rate at which the United States locks people up is five times higher than most countries —even though the crime rate in the country is similar to that of other stable, industrialized nations. Moreover, it detains more people per capita than any other nation in the world. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, almost 2.3 million people are currently confined in more than 6,000 jails, prisons and detention centres operated by multiple federal, state, county and private actors. To put this figure into perspective, it is about the entire population of Vancouver, Canada.

Many of the American prisons are having significant environmental impacts. For example, the California Men’s Colony (CMC) state prison is only 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean coastline in San Luis Obispo. CMC has a history of water pollution dating back nearly two decades, with pollution-related penalties to at least 2004. The local water quality control board fined the prison $600,000 for spilling 220,000 gallons of raw sewage into a nearby creek. This creek flows into Morro Bay, which is a state-designated marine protected estuary. Despite CMC upgrading its old wastewater treatment plant after the 2004 sewage spill, environmental problems persist today.

Although CMC is one of the most egregious water polluters in the United States, it is not alone. From Virginia to Washington State, prisons all over America have been caught violating point source pollution regulations under state and federal water laws and falsifying water pollution reports. For example, the Washington State prison, Monroe Correctional Complex, has violated environmental rules on multiple occasions.

In 2004, the prison was spotted falsifying water pollution reports to cover up excess fecal coliform levels in water discharged into the local Puget Sound. Furthermore, the Human Rights Defense Center obtained records indicating that the Monroe Correctional Complex dumped nearly half a million gallons of polluted water between 2008 and 2015, contaminating nearby rivers and wetlands.

Over the past five years, American agencies have issued 132 informal actions and 28 formal actions against prisons and jails under the Clean Water Act, resulting in over $556,000 in fines. Prisons not only have a damaging effect on water, but they also have a significant impact on local air pollution levels.

Air quality can be affected for several reasons, one of which is due to on-site resources like industrial activities linked to prison labour programmes or local power generation. For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered that Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections had coal-fired boilers at four state prisons between 2010-2011, exceeding federal standards for particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide.

Over the past five years, EPA data indicates 92 informal actions and 51 formal actions have been made against prisons, jails, and detention centres across America under the Clean Air Act. However, the fines have been minimal, and it has been left to the prisons to clean up their act.

The Eco-Prison Movement

The eco-prisons will use heat pumps instead of gas for heating and a range of energy efficiency measures – including smart lighting systems and solar technology to cut energy demand by half.

The 2050 net-zero target is incredibly tough and more ambitious than the previous target, involving at least an 80% reduction from 1990 levels. However, with the net-zero goal in mind, governments tackle climate change by adopting many different strategies. Here are just a few of the nations adopting positive environmental practices in their prison systems:

  • United Kingdom

In May 2021, the Ministry of Justice revealed plans to build four new all-electric prisons. The eco-prisons will use heat pumps instead of gas for heating and implement a range of energy efficiency measures, including smart lighting systems and solar technology, to cut energy demand by half. These zero-carbon prisons aim to cut energy costs by £100 million over the next 60 years and reduce CO2 emissions by at least 85%.

The prison buildings will also use new technology and modern methods of construction that aim to produce as much or more electricity as they consume. For example, the all-electric design will eliminate the need for gas boilers, meaning that once the National Grid is decarbonized, the prisons will have net-zero emissions. After the grid is decarbonized, the prisons’ use of self-generated renewable and grid power for heating and electricity will result in them being run at net-zero.

Existing prisons in the United Kingdom also benefit from a £15 million investment to reduce their emissions. This includes solar panels being installed at 16 prisons to supply 20% of their power demand, bringing the total number of solar panels to over 20,000 across the government’s estate. Additionally, there are plans to install more than 200 electric vehicle charging points across 40 prisons.

  • Australia

Clarence Correctional Centre (CLA) is currently the largest and most technologically advanced prison in Australia. It is an innovative correctional facility and one of the most environmentally friendly prisons in the world. The prison still aims to make further improvements and has identified opportunities to cut waste, optimize energy consumption, and push the infrastructure towards being carbon natural.

There is a range of impressive, forward-thinking solutions in  CLA. For example, all artificial light is continuously adjusted to account for the levels of natural daylight. In addition, a sensorless daylight harvesting system reduced CLA’s electricity consumption by over 1000 MWh per year. By reducing the amount of electricity used, the carbon footprint of the prison site is minimized. In addition, it extends the life of light fittings, which means they generate less waste.

CLA has a ‘zero waste to landfill’ commitment which governs how the prison manages waste. Even their most challenging waste streams are handled as recovered resources—all of which must have a suitable solution through collaborative partnerships.

Zero waste to landfill forces CLA to think through all the waste produced and provide opportunities for localized circular economies. For example, the CLA wastewater treatment plant uses microbial processes to create an organic waste stream that would otherwise be dumped in a landfill. Instead, local sugar farmers use it for improved regenerative agriculture. They provide the prison with sugar, and CLA provides them with fertilizer.

  • Sweden

A prison in Sweden won the 2019 BREEAM Public Projects In-Use award for its eco-friendly initiatives. The award-winning building, Tabellen 4, makes up part of the Sollentuna High-Security Remand Prison. It includes a 1,100 square meter green roof made of plants and turf, a ventilation system that recycles heat from the air, a waste disposal room with storage for eight different sorts of waste, and converts all food waste into biogas. The mechanical ventilation system heats and cools the building using recycled energy in the air. It reduced the need for power for heating by 50% to 60%.

Other features of this incredible prison include its water-conserving bathroom facilities. It has low-flush toilets and bathrooms designed to reduce water consumption. It also has energy-efficient fridges and an LED lighting system that can be controlled from a central surveillance facility. In addition, the building is covered in 6,000 square meters of insulating glass, which regulates room temperature and even has built-in alarm systems.

Sollentuna is also doing its part in the fight against air pollution by installing an underground corridor that connects the prison to the prosecutor’s office and courthouse. This facilitates the safe transport of prisoners without the need for cars.

The United Kingdom, Australia, and Sweden are not the only nations pushing the boundaries of eco-prisons. The Bastøy Prison in Norway has solar panels, produces its own food on-site, and recycles as much as possible. In the US, Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Washington State has solar panels covering 16,929 square feet and reportedly saves $370,000 in energy costs per year. In Washington State, the Cedar Creek Corrections Center makes honey from the prison’s hives.

Closing Thoughts

Apart from the significant environmental impacts prisons have, there are also some secondary effects—for example, emissions from prison-related traffic, including all the visitor traffic and the trucks delivering supplies. In areas where there are problems with air pollution, the prison industry is yet another source of the problem for the overburdened community. Prisons also consume a lot of water, so this can be a massive issue during droughts in arid areas. Many of these communities have to share water resources with overcrowded prison systems.

Creating more sustainable prisons using recycled building materials and incorporating green energy will help reduce CO2 emissions, benefiting everyone. The prison industry has limitations as it tends to have a tight budget, but the restrictions should not result in existing opportunities being dismissed. Whatever the funding available, all prisons should be working towards a more sustainable future.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How is Canada improving sustainability in its prisons?

Finding new ways to become more environmentally friendly in Canadian prisons can be challenging due to budget cuts. It is, however, focusing on reducing power usage by installing occupancy sensor lights. The lights do not turn on unless movement is detected, which helps cut utility use by half.

 

Do prisons run off of solar power?

There are many prisons around the world harnessing the power of solar energy. Renewable energy benefits the environment and helps save utility costs for both the prison and taxpayers. For example, the new renewable energy project in Colorado, United States, is predicted to save state taxpayers $475,000 in electricity costs during the next 20 years. The solar panels will produce enough electricity to power the equivalent of 80 homes.

 

Are prisons polluting rural areas?

The pollution on prison sites often predates detention facilities. The collocation of prisons and preexisting pollution, including landfills and waste sites, has become commonplace in many countries. These polluted prison sites are usually located in rural areas with limited media attention, often going unnoticed.

 

Is pollution making inmates ill?

Some prison sites have so much pollution in and around the facility that inmates’ health is negatively impacted. One of the most well-known cases is Pennsylvania’s maximum-security SCI Fayette prison in the United States. SCI Fayette was built on the edge of a coal-ash dump for a nearby mine. Winds frequently blew ash—which contains arsenic, lead, and mercury—into the air around the prison. The SCI Fayette inmates who inhaled it for prolonged periods reported respiratory problems. Longer-term risks included thyroid cancer and lung disease.

 

What is needed for prisons to become carbon neutral?

Like all other buildings, prisons are obliged to reduce energy consumption and replace fossil fuel use with renewable alternatives. The majority of sustainable energy technologies are reliable and cost-effective to be used for prison operation energy. However, for prisons to become carbon natural, they should:

  • Reduce energy consumption through energy-saving practices.
  • Replace fossil fuels with renewable alternatives like solar power.
  • Generate equal amounts of renewable power to that taken from the grid.
  • Offset any carbon emissions due to fossil fuel use with the creation of green initiatives such as tree plantations which sequestrate atmospheric carbon equal to the amounts emitted.

 

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