Trendspotting: The Green Revolution


In one of the many inspiring speeches that Dr. Martin Luther King gave, he told a group of college students that he could think of nothing more tragic than sleeping through a revolution. He wasn’t criticizing the need for a good nap, or even commenting on the “regime” change that occurred. Dr. King was using the 20-year snooze of Rip Van Winkle who dozed off under George III and awakened to George Washington to make the point that Rip missed the revolution and thus the participation in change.

Some of the readers of this issue of Correctional News that is devoted to a discussion of the new green revolution in correctional environments will recall the last time a really remarkable change occurred in the design of correctional facilities. In the 1970s, the Bureau of Prisons under the design leadership of Jim Webster, Gary Mote, Mary Galey, and Scott Higgins, among others began to press for a different design response to managing prisoners.

Their thesis, supported by quantitative and anecdotal research, was that removal of the barriers to staff and prisoner communication would lessen tension and stress, and would encourage the use of more normative — and less expensive — materials.

This relatively uncomplicated concept initiated a change in the design of correctional facilities that has been sustained to the present day. The third-generation revolution truly altered the methods of configuring housing units in prisons throughout the world.

Like all revolutions, there are two sides to the debate regarding direct and indirect supervision. But the concept revolutionized our perception of the barriers that prevent the normalization of management in a correctional environment. In the end, the entire notion of managing, rather than observing, inmates was not revolutionary at all. The change was in the way that the design community responded; and that became revolutionary.

The Indian anthropologist M.N. Srinivas offered insight into our response to change in his “third-generation” theory that suggests that we first become familiar with the culture into which we are born then we move from this familiarity to a place (think college, military, peace corps, Pittsburgh) where we become newly comfortable; and finally we turn our gaze back to our native culture but with the insight of new eyes.

The emerging green movement in our culture may in fact be step three of Srinivas’ theory. To survive, our nation began as conservationists before it moved into a new culture characterized by excess. Now it may be forced to return to where it began.

The need to survive may yet again redefine our culture. This return to the first-born stage will significantly alter the daily routine of our lives. For example, this magazine which is already available electronically, may have to become exclusively so. I dread when I won’t have to wash my hands after reading the morning newspaper, but I know that day is nigh.

In the greening of our prisons, the big picture is important but the success of the revolution will depend upon the response at the lowest common denominator — us. Of course, we need the very broad policy initiatives based on scientific research, but the carbon footprint that each one of us leaves every single day will be where the change will have to begin.

Consider this: recent research from the University of Illinois has found that our cars use an extra billion gallons of gas a year to transport those of us who have not pushed away from the buffet soon enough. This is the change that will require an attitude adjustment, not to mention will power.

One reason why the direct-supervision revolution worked so well was the attitudes and habits of staff and inmates were altered and ultimately reflected through the design of spaces. Architects and material manufacturers are clever people that will creatively respond to direction. As with most revolutions, in the beginning, the focus has to be upon altering a mind set, and in the correctional environment this will involve staff and inmates.

Two of the most basic elements of survival are light and water, both of which are used in great quantities in correctional facilities. Back in 2003 in a Trendspotting article, I suggested that the average American prisoner uses at least 80-120 gallons of water a day to just flush the toilet. 

Consider the water used to launder clothes and linens, prepare food and cool the facilities and the magnitude of just this one daily necessity is stunning. A number of institutions have experimented with low water usage toilets, but as yet this has not become a cultural change.

The second high usage area that is solely down to individual consumption is electricity for lighting living spaces. In Claire Bonham-Carter’s very well-prepared presentation, “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” at the recent Grapevine American Correctional Association winter conference, she advised us that buildings consume 65 percent of all electricity, and by inference correctional facilities are at the top of the list of high-use building types. No one expects prisons to be operated in the dark, but the notion that night and day is indistinguishable inside many dayrooms and cells is a concept that may require another look.

The issue of light raises the opportunity to comment on a trend that I find especially disturbing: the removal of natural light from cells. One of the least costly ways to achieve appropriate and healthy light levels is to partner with Mother Nature. Yet the trendy “cost-driven” argument involves windowless cells that require more electricity to illuminate the space. The standard was initially proposed by ACA to accommodate jails on restricted urban sites, not to conceive windowless boxes in the middle of cornfields. Try that concept in most other nations and endure the ridicule.

One of the greatest benefits of the pending green revolution in prison design is the requirement that we re-think our mission and our core values, which was the focus of the third-generation-revolution. Just as with the move toward direct supervision and the perceived diminution of security, the same reluctance will likely occur as we attempt to reduce the environmental footprint of our facilities by designing naturally lighted and ventilated correctional facilities.

As with the third-generation revolution, we need leaders that are willing to push the barriers; one such leader is David Jansen, a professional engineer with the State of Washington Department of Corrections who helped to guide the DOC towards a sustainability plan five years ago. Today, the DOC is requiring LEED certification on all new prisons.

The ACA has a role in promoting the concept through the promulgation of standards. Just as the acceptance of a new acoustical standard has been a challenge of mind-sets, so too will be the recommendation to reduce the environmental footprint of places where we rehabilitate people. Perhaps this is a call for the Facility Design Committee and the Academy of Architecture for Justice to arm the revolutionaries with the evidence based research to inform the movement.

The coming lifestyle alteration to sustain a livable earth is inevitable and is not a revolution that any of us will be able to sleep through. We have lived the alternative culture and have an incredible opportunity to have learned the lessons from consumption and adjust to a more sustainable incarceration environment by starting with the simple tasks of “waste not, want not” in the housing units. From simple changes to the living place, the broader footprint- reduction measures will follow and, as with direct supervision, the correctional community will respond.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C., and a Correctional News Columnist.