7 steps to save $1,000 per inmate by "going green"

How sustainable corrections can easily save your budget and the environment

Article updated on August 4, 2017.

Co-authored by Gene Atherton, Hunter Lovins and Paul Sheldon

When correctional professionals hear that it is possible to save $1,000 per inmate by "greening" correctional facilities, the most important question is, "What can we do to get started?"

What follows here are straightforward ideas – "low-lying fruit" – that can be implemented immediately to save money,  conserve resources and create a more eco-friendly correctional facility. 

By using resources more efficiently, correctional institutions can free up funding, staff time and facility space for other security-oriented activities. In a sample facility with 1,200 beds, if utility prices rise by as little as 5% per year over the next 20 years, the cost to the institution could be as high as $1,200,000 or more, which is $1,000 per inmate.

Reducing energy/water use and waste disposal by just 5% will prevent this cost increase. Rather than having to spend $1,000 per inmate, the facility will SAVE $1,000 per inmate, allowing the institution to maintain staffing and meet other security needs.

If the annual increase in combined energy, water, and waste disposal bills were 10%, the cost over 20 years could be over $7,200,000. Reducing energy/water and waste disposal by 10% would similarly save up to $7,200,000, once again making these funds available for staffing and security.

Doing maintenance first, maximizing efficiency, using inmate labor, providing job training and using third-party funding sources all enhance the value of these cost-saving measures.

Here are 7 easy steps to saving money in your correctional facility:

1. More efficient lighting

Institutions as diverse as the Boulder, Colorado, County Jail and El Dorado State Correctional Facility in Kansas have invested in lighting upgrades, including skylights and other forms of daylighting, replacing T-12 fluorescent fixtures with T-8s, replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, and providing LED task lights. Kansas invested $2,123,556 in various energy-saving measures, including lighting, and is saving $247,517 per year. This translates to a utility cost reduction of 16%, simple payback of 8.2 years, and a 10-year return on investment of more than 12%.

2. More efficient HVAC

In addition to lighting upgrades, many facilities, such as Norfolk (Va.) Correctional Complex have tuned up or replaced their HVAC systems in order to save money and time. Norfolk installed a complex-wide energy management and control system, replaced two 1,500-horsepower steam plants, installed steam trap upgrades, and expects to reduce costs by more than the upgrades cost.

3. More efficient plug-in appliances

Simple upgrading to ENERGY STAR appliances can save up to 25% or more of the energy used for refrigerators, freezers, office equipment, washing machines, dryers, water coolers, etc. Just turning off appliances such as vending machines when not in use can save 30%–50% of the electricity. Requiring inmate televisions to be certified as ENERGY STAR efficient could save 30-50% of the electricity used for televisions. And requiring prison industry shops to use efficient appliances and machinery could save similar amounts on utility bills.

4. More efficient motors & pumps

Motors and pumps use large amounts of electricity. Installing variable speed motors, such as was done by Norfolk Correctional Complex, reduces electricity used by motors by 15%–35%. Some companies, such as Emerson Motors, offer corrections-specific audits, recommendations, and services to help reduce energy use by pumps and motors.

5. More efficient water use

Saving water means saving money. So installation of water-efficient toilets, urinals, shower heads, rain barrels, and green roofs can further reduce water bills. Efficient garden projects, like the Women’s Garden Project at Evergreen Corrections Center in British Columbia, Canada, can beautify surroundings and reduce stress, while conserving water through use of rain barrels and swales.

6. Materials (moving towards zero waste)

Procedures such as recycling, composting, gardening, and life-cycle-cost-analysis can reduce the cost of procurement and waste disposal. Nearly every state boasts facilities that compost, grow vegetables and livestock, recycle, and evaluate the full life-cycle costs of operating equipment as well as purchase price, saving money in the process. Mississippi Prison’s Agricultural Enterprise generates $3,025,655 in revenues to offset the $3,124,507 cost of food, and employs 374 inmates for 774,000 hours per year. The system grows 23 different varieties of vegetables, corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, fruit, 7,300 hogs, and 36,000 chickens for inmate consumption, livestock feed, and outside sale.

7. Independent and secure energy

The most reliable way to save money on energy is to install local, renewable energy systems, such as wind turbinessolar panelsgeothermal systems, and biomass-fired heat and power systems.


Energy, water, and waste efficiency upgrades are so profitable that many third-party financiers, will provide the up-front cost for free, in exchange for an agreement to share the cost savings with the finance company. In July of 2010, the American Correctional Association adopted the first standard to recommend that accredited facilities implement cost-effective energy efficiency, water efficiency, recycling, and renewable energy. In addition to saving money, the seven steps listed above will help comply with this standard as well.

Hunter Lovins is the Founder and President of Natural Capitalism Solutions (www.NatCapSolutions.org), a Colorado-based non-profit group educating senior decision makers in ways to implement the principles of sustainability. She is the co-author of the book, Natural Capitalism, as well as more than a dozen other books and hundreds of articles on sustainability.

Paul Sheldon is Natural Capitalism's Senior Consultant, who has served as a workshop leader on greening corrections for the American Correctional Association, the North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents, and the U.S. Department of Justice.

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