Where Security Meets Ecology

Article excerpt

A green prison sounds unlikely - especially in the US. But a ground-breaking facility in America wants to improve the environment as well as crime rates. By Rob Sharp

Environmentally friendly prisons. Liberals think they're a no- brainer, right-wingers might view them as just another hand in the public purse. Do the world's incarcerated now have a responsibility to save the planet?

The Washington State Department of Corrections seems to think so. This week, the US Green Building Council awarded the department North America's most prestigious environmental award - a plaque for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design - for a 21-building, medium-security extension at its Coyote Ridge Corrections Centre in Connell, a small city in the state's Franklin County. Since the extension's completion in October 2008, each year the penitentiary uses 5.5 million gallons less water than its conventional equivalents, saving its operators around $370,000 (235,807) in energy costs over the period. Its solar panels occupy 16,929sq ft and it floods its corridors with natural light. But is this money well-spent? The 19th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, whose theories considered prison design, once said: "The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation." It must follow that Coyote Ridge's all-encompassing social, humanitarian and environmental benefits speak for themselves.

"Every aspect of a prison design, from its staff to its location, is important," says Sean McConvill, co-author of the influential British book Prison Design. "Among these, no doubt, is respect for the environment and careful use of resources, which must have a beneficial impact on staff and inmates alike."

Indeed, Coyote Ridge's staff are congratulating themselves. The prison's facility manager, Glenn Jones, told reporters this month the jail had performed "better than we hoped". He described how its laundry system reduced reliance on a local aquifer, and how a rubbish recycling programme had cut the amount of waste produced by a half, impressing local legislators.

Environmentally, at the very least, it is easy to see why the $230m (147m) extension has picked up a gong. From the outside, the barbed wire and monolithic concrete blocks make it look like any other correctional outpost. But then, visitors catch a glimpse of a "drought-resistance landscape" of gravel instead of thirsty grass (cutting water use by 25 per cent). …