Q&A: Greening Corrections ACA Panel

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Greening of Corrections panel, one of many educational opportunities at ACA’s 139th Congress of Correction, emphasized the challenges of applying sustainability strategies and measures at justice facilities.

Gene Atherton, institutions program manager for the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center – Rocky Mountain Region moderated the event, which also featured Jerry Elmblad, energy coordinator at the Michigan Department of Corrections; Todd Gundlach, deputy director of resource management for the Massachusetts Department of Corrections; and John Armstrong, a former Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Corrections who has also served as project manager for the National Institute of Justice office of technology commercialization. Correctional News spoke with the panelists following the 90-minute seminar.

Q: Why are we seeing a presentation on sustainability in corrections at this year’s ACA Congress?

Atherton: People out in the field have been really focused and thinking about this issue for several years, but at the moment, it’s about knowing who to call in another state or agency.

The reaction you most often get when you talk about going green is, “No, I don’t do that, but I wish someone would put some information together for us.” There’s a ton of stuff going on in corrections in the area of sustainability that is not necessarily being shared.

Q: Sustainability seems to be a driving force in other markets. Why is the corrections field behind the curve?

Atherton: There are green programs and initiatives in corrections all over the United States. In a number of states, the green programs are well developed and very advanced. In others, efforts are isolated with fitful progress. It often happens that way when systems change. You get silos of development where individuals and organizations are not necessarily sharing information across jurisdictional lines, which creates a lag-time from one individual development to when that information begins to spread from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

We’ve probably reached the point where the exchange and spread of information is starting to take off.

Elmblad: For me, the correctional field is like any other sector when it comes to incorporating sustainability measures. Everybody thought they were immune to the imperatives of energy saving simply because they didn’t have to think about it and there were more important considerations, like safety and security, staff and inmate rights, and so on.

There are mandates that require the maximum amount of light and certain temperatures within correctional facilities — the list goes on — so in lot of respects, we are immune, but at the same time there is the potential to achieve a lot of savings. Once the price of energy spiked, everybody got on board real quick because they see where the money is going.

A major part of what we’re trying to do here is identify what is available to corrections and to help agencies move forward with the right information and strategies.

Q: Is it fair to say then that the primary impetus for sustainability in corrections is saving money?

Gundlach: The increase in the cost of energy has really put the emphasis on energy saving and conservation measures. In Massachusetts, like many states, the largest component of the budget is the department of corrections and a major portion of its spending is operating expenses, so it makes sense to look at those operating expenses for possible savings.

Green concepts and operational savings go hand in hand. Renewable energy creates savings because instead of buying power from a producer, who may or may not be using green technologies, you’re producing power from renewable sources on site. Power generation from renewable energy is a good opportunity to trim operating budgets if you can find financing.

Armstrong: Traditionally, the corrections field has not done a good job in the area of sustainability and part of the issue revolves around culture and identification. I think we’ve seen the beginning of a real shift in philosophy and we need to continue to make sure that sustainability is a priority.

We need to set an example. We are part of the essential problem in terms of our use of energy. When you take apart our budgets and look what it takes to feed, cloth and house an inmate, energy costs are a huge ticket item.
At the same time, we have the opportunity to develop and train a workforce, which is part of our correctional objectives. There is a great and growing demand for green technology skills and we should take advantage of it.

Q: What factors are slowing progress?

Armstrong: There are a number of factors at play and certainly we have to realign our way of thinking to get where we ought to be. Having been on the inside of the system myself, I understand the importance of lighting for safety and security. But, if we can look down and see a correctional facility from a spaceship, then you have to ask, how much light is necessary, and is it absolutely necessary to illuminate everything when there are several other elements in place to provide security?

We need to examine if we can rely on some of these other technological developments to reduce our lighting use and consumption, whether that’s turning off some lights, lowering them, putting them on motion sensors or taking them out completely.

These kinds of things can make a significant difference. Motion sensors, for instance, draw attention and create a reason to investigate the source of the light activation. When the lights are always on, officers are less likely to take notice.

Changing our perspective and the way we think about what we do is critical. I think we’re moving forward, but the question remains whether we do just enough or whether we go all out. We’re facing probably one of our greatest challenges today, but it’s also one of our greatest opportunities.

Q: Beyond attitudes and behavior, what are the other problem areas?

Gundlach: Everybody wants to do this, but the mechanics and logistics take a long time. In terms of procurement, it takes one year for a wind turbine to be built and shipped to you. That’s a major obstacle.
I came out of the critical infrastructure business, and it’s similar to the situation I experienced with procuring wet-cell batteries for data centers. At one time, they had a 58-week lead-time.

Standards are another major issue. Of course, there are people out there who say they can do all these things and generate all these efficiencies. But, you don’t have anything to benchmark it against or verify what they’re saying is actually true, other than your own experiences or picking up the phone and calling references or talking to colleagues.

It can take a long time to procure something and you may not know how to procure it in the first place, which adds to the infinite number of other obstacles.

Atherton: On top of the purchasing lead times for technologies and the lack standards when it comes to procurement, the fact is you cannot manage sustainability strategies and implement solutions unless you can measure them.

By the same token, you can’t purchase a technology unless you can specify it. So again, you have all these silos of innovative solutions — Washington, California and New Mexico are full of solar arrays — and many jurisdictions are moving quickly. At the same time, as funding increases and more money gets funneled in, people are going to ask for accountability.

Already engineers are saying, “I can’t even measure water flow,” or “I don’t measure it in the same way this state or that state does.” There’s no apparatus in place to tell us how to specify the product, whether it’s solar panels, temperature controls or water gauges.

Q: Is the regulatory environment part of the problem?

Atherton: Navigating bureaucracy is a really slow and cumbersome process. Most of this work falls into the public realm and we have wave after wave of purchasing and specification requirements to negotiate to get the right product. Each state is confronted with issues like these that delay and hinder progress. Even when the decision is made that a particular technology is perfect for application in a specific location or facility, it can take a long time for it to get put into place.

Q: What role, if any, do funding and budgetary factors play?

Atherton: In most states, sustainability initiatives are essentially unfunded mandates. When the governor says you shall reduce your carbon footprint by 25 percent or 40 percent, there is usually no funding attached to that mandate.

You have to create the funding through energy savings in order to get the carbon footprint down. However, the savings from energy efficiency efforts typically get dumped back into the state’s general fund. We have lawmakers telling agencies to reduce carbon emissions and energy costs, but there’s no funding provided and any money saved is taken away. Part of the problem holding back progress could be rooted in the lack of incentives for corrections leadership.

Another negative aspect of these unfunded mandates is existing operations funding and staffing positions that were previously devoted to building and maintaining prisons are often diverted to green projects and the routine work that still has to be done gets left behind.

Gundlach: We were lucky in Massachusetts because the Division of Capital Asset Management set up a separate fund to hold budget savings that accrued from efficiency measures. The division directs the funds back to the user agencies that generated them, which allows the agencies to put the money in additional sustainability initiatives.

Q: What other factors are impacting greening efforts?

Gundlach: The knowledge base is pretty thin. There are not a lot of people out there who know how to do this stuff. I’ve got the largest solar array in Massachusetts right now. There isn’t a standard method for mounting the panels, even within the industry, so we went round for round with officials to determine exactly how we could mount the panels — what type of apparatus, how they would be secured, what type of wind and snow loads it could handle, the impact on existing infrastructure, and on and on.

The green industry doesn’t have its act together to the point where it can educate us and fulfill our needs from an engineering standpoint on how to install these things safely, quickly and efficiently.

People want to do this, but it’s like we have to invent the wheel with every application and every project, particularly for solar technology. The industry hasn’t caught up to the demand or need.

Atherton: Training and education is key to understanding the parameters and what you can do within those parameters. Once facilities people understand what they’re going to get, how they’ll apply it and what they’ll end up with, they tend to buy into the effort and you see attitudes and behavior change.

Q: There is no money, a problematic regulatory environment, no standards and little information sharing. How can corrections agencies pursue successful sustainability strategies?

Atherton: I think most of us in public service have learned you have to eat the elephant one bite at a time. There are many small things that can be done that will add up to major progress. You may not be able to get that wind turbine, but you need to ask what else you can do. Look for things that are practical and easier to do that can be folded into existing policy.

That kind of approach seems to be the progression of almost all major change in corrections. It’s a slow-moving evolutionary process. I have no doubt that in the future, as the technology and industry improve, the lead-time for things like wind turbines will come down significantly.

As with other renewable energy sources, wind power is exploding with public and private investment. The wind turbine industry is finding it hard to keep up, so when we turn up with our order for towers, we are probably not going be a priority.

Gundlach: People need to start small. Don’t try to jump right in with the big sexy stuff like the big solar arrays and huge wind towers, which you probably won’t have the money for anyway.

Look at things like compact fluorescent lamps. From an operations standpoint, I found myself asking why we keep the power on in cells all night when we could cut the power via master control at a specific time every night.
Armstrong: It comes back to understanding and educating facility leadership, staff and even the offender population.

Right now, you can start with something as simple as a light-bulb change that will cost 25 percent less to operate and last 10 times longer.

These kinds of measures are easy to implement and don’t burden your operating budget, so you can move on to something else. The problem for corrections agencies with generating cost savings — and this goes back to the bureaucratic environment — comes with the fact that most jurisdictions do not allow you to take any money savings from your budget and reinvest it into additional strategies to generate even bigger sustainability and cost-saving returns.

Elmblad: In terms of a starting point, we’re going after the low-lying fruit because we don’t have the money to invest. We’re picking the easy items that show success, and that encourages people to buy in, which in turn leads to major success and progress.

You can start with something as simple as adjusting the power management settings on your computers, which most people don’t even think about, and also by getting staff to turn off their computers at the end of the day. You just need to educate and inform your staff. Leadership is important, but it has to be committed leadership and knowledgeable leadership.

Gundlach: Inter-agency relationships and collaboration are hugely important. Through my work in procurement for the DOC’s operational services division, I became involved with the state’s sustainability council, which was set up to oversee statewide sustainability initiatives. The buy-in at the top from lawmakers, the legislative mandates and executive orders, gets mediated through this organization and filtered down to state agencies and decision-makers.

Q: Is there an apparatus of green mandates and initiatives in place in most states that correctional agencies can leverage?

Atherton: Yes, to a degree, but it’s one thing for the governor in a state to issue a mandate; it’s quite another for every agency to be completely compliant. How initiatives filter out has to do with money, attitudes and leadership at every level. As in all areas of society, there are probably a lot of people in corrections who don’t care one jot about sustainability — maybe they’re close to retirement, maybe they’re mad about not being able smoke in the facility, or maybe they just don’t care.

The point is, regardless of the apparatus that may in place, it takes time to change the culture and attitude of people. Having said that, I really think all the ingredients are there. People have a sense of what is at stake in terms of energy use, carbon emissions and global warming.

As much as we say that the buy-in of leadership from the top down is important, much of the change we see going on right now comes from the ground up with individuals.

When the surge from the ground up meets with the top-down leadership of governors and lawmakers, that’s the point when things will really begin to pop.

Q: What steps should corrections officials take to initiate a green program?

Elmblad: First, conduct an audit so you know exactly what you have, what you need and what you should focus on. The audit also establishes a baseline that allows you to monitor, measure and benchmark performance outcomes.

The emergence of standards is also important when it comes to auditing, so you can establish exactly what you need in relation to what the audit and standards say.

Gundlach: We’ve talked a lot about costs and funding, but energy-efficiency measures can be no-cost opportunities. For instance, we were able to implement large-scale energy performance contracts on the basis of writing RFPs to various energy services companies soliciting specific proposals for what they could do to help us save energy.

The company comes out and conducts an audit, generates a list of projects or measures you can implement. They can tell you how much the measures will cost and how much energy they will save. If the energy savings will pay for the cost of the upgrades and improvements within a reasonable period of time, you can enter into a financing program that will cover the initial capital investment expenditures.

In Massachusetts, we undertook $35 million of energy performance contracting with simple 20-year paybacks at no cost to us beyond paying back the “mortgage.” A typical performance contract should not cost you anything to get started and it should pay for itself in a reasonable amount of time that’s attractive to any financing organization.

Atherton: Having access to good information about what deals are out there and where the prospects are for state funding, federal grants and mutual contacts is essential to getting started. Some of the deficiency in progress is rooted in the lack of good information about funding resources. Without that kind of information you’re left chasing down a friend of friend who knows somebody or you’re facing endless hours wading through Web sites. Easily available and consolidated quality information really makes it much easier to get started.

Q: What states offer best-practice models for greening corrections?

Atherton: You can look to Michigan, Massachusetts, Washington, California, Indiana and Colorado, all of which have major programs in place and are making significant progress.

Texas has launched some initiatives that should grow pretty fast and just designated a leadership executive to focus exclusively coordinating sustainability programs in the Department of Criminal Justice.

Q: What about jurisdictions at the local level?

Atherton: Generally speaking, sustainability efforts across small jails are a lot less organized. The American Jail Association can play a significant role in that respect. There are also a handful of states, including Colorado and Texas that have relatively cohesive jail management associations that oversee standards of operation in a similar manner to the ACA.

Armstrong: Whether it’s a small recycling program or changing staff behaviors, there are many corrections folks out there who recognize that the more we do, the better off we are as individuals, agencies and communities. But, I think the massive efforts — the ones that will be required to change our consumption of fossil fuels and our way of life — are yet to come.

As a society, we’re feeling the pressure of our dependence on energy and the way we use it. I think all of us are beginning to look at it in a different way and think about what we can do to effect change.

Q: What can the ACA and similar organizations do to support sustainability in corrections?

Atherton: Organizations need to have more presentations and forums that address sustainability issues and strategies. Obviously, it takes time for the word to get out, but I’m confident we’ll see this seminar appear again at the next conference.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the ACA needs to promulgate sustainability standards. These are the two areas that would make the most difference. We’ve been really absorbed with other issues, but and I think the wheels are turning. Sustainability issues are getting more attention during the annual conferences and conventions of a number of representative organizations associated with prisons and jails and the professionals who plan, design, build, operate and maintain them. The ACA has huge media tools that can ensure progress in the area of sustainability grows relatively quickly.

Q: Are existing operational standards for safety and security an obstacle to sustainability efforts?

Elmblad: To a certain degree, but they’re limited to niche areas, such as daylighting, and they are of relatively minor significance in terms of the big picture. I would bet that a standards document for green technologies is in the hopper right now, somewhere.

Atherton: The problem is not one of existing operational standards; it’s getting a newer, more comprehensive standard with bigger teeth in place. But, that takes forever because it has to go from committee to committee to committee.

It takes efforts like this to push and keep pushing until something hits the surface. The standard has to apply to all American prisons, so any new standard will not get through the committee phase and approved and implemented until everyone is comfortable and sure that the standard fits.