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Concrete building with green plant terraces
Photo by Danist Soh on Unsplash

This story is part of a partnership between Global Forum Online and Atmos, a biannual magazine that explores climate and culture.

Prisons are like small cities. They operate around the clock, are densely occupied and consume vast amounts of energy. At a typical institution, incarcerated residents and correctional officers exist alongside a large administrative and medical staff, teachers, kitchen supervisors and maintenance workers — all of whom are consuming energy and producing waste.

The American carceral system — a sprawling leviathan consisting of jails and prisons that includes almost 2 million incarcerated people and hundreds of thousands of corrections staff — has a massive environmental footprint. In correctional facilities across the country, a never-ending stream of discarded paper and plastic goes straight to the landfill. Tons of leftover food is thrown away. Copious amounts of water are used and wasted. Lighting, air conditioning, refrigeration, laundry services, kitchen appliances and security-related tech in prison all use huge amounts of electricity, which costs taxpayers thousands of dollars and releases dirty energy into the atmosphere.

At Dade Correctional Institution in Florida City, Florida, where I was incarcerated from April to December 2022, I saw signs of waste everywhere. Every day, thousands of disposable styrofoam cups and plastic spoons were discarded; massive quantities of food were thrown into dumpsters; and hundreds of bottles and cans were never recycled. Similar scenes play out at jails and prisons across the country. California, for example, estimates that between 0.5 and 1.2 pounds of food waste per inmate is generated each day. At a facility with 4,000 residents, that adds up to at least a ton of food waste a day.

As the planet’s climate crisis worsens, America’s prisons and jails, which hold 20% of the world’s prison population, must take more responsibility for their environmental impact. They can retrofit facilities to reduce their carbon footprint without expanding the prison system. This would not require a radical financial commitment or progressive policy change. Solar energy, water recycling, agriculture, and composting can all be done successfully for little cost.

But some prison abolitionists disagree.

In their article “The paradox of the ‘green’ prison,” British scholars Yvonne Jewkes and Dominique Moran posit that attempting to improve prisons through environmental reforms makes it harder to challenge the fundamental problem that they exist in the first place. The authors argue that “green discourses perversely are fast becoming symbolic and material structures that frame and support mass imprisonment.”

Others take the argument further. “Saving 50% on energy costs when you’re locking people up is a savings, but not locking them up at all would be a larger savings that addresses social justice concerns,” said architect and activist Raphael Sperry to the New York Times in 2009.

Critics also point out that building new, environmentally friendly facilities enables corporate interests that don’t care about prisoners to greenwash their actions and present themselves as allies to incarcerated people and the environment.

Prisons and their construction pose significant environmental hazards, which harm both the planet and the people confined to them. But there is no downside to retrofitting existing institutions and striving for zero waste. American prisons must continue — and in some cases, simply begin — to limit their environmental impact. These efforts are not only beneficial to our environment; they also help incarcerated people feel that we’re giving back. Doing nothing while we wait for society to abolish carceral institutions would be ecologically irresponsible and would cheat incarcerated residents out of a chance for personal growth, good health and safer living conditions.

Traditional prisons offer no benefit to incarcerated people — and actually harm them by not adopting new technology. By greening institutions, the residents will learn about eco-responsibility and live in a healthier environment that promotes well-being and saves taxpayer money.

Solar Energy

The states with the largest prison systems in the country — California, Texas and Florida — are also the states with the highest solar energy capacity. One of the easiest ways for the prison-industrial complex to reduce emissions would be to take advantage of that abundant natural resource, ending prisons’ reliance on harmful fossil fuels.

The price for solar panels has dropped 90% since 2010. The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act last year has boosted the federal tax credit system to help offset the cost, and the installation pays for itself through lower energy bills. By covering rooftops and open land around the nation’s carceral institutions with solar arrays, prisons could transition off dirty electricity and achieve net metering to sell excess energy back to the grid.

In one example, a solar project at Riverside Correctional Facility in Philadelphia — consisting of 45 solar panels — provided a constant supply of domestic hot water to both the prisoner showers and the laundry facility. A hot shower can be the difference between a good and a bad day when you’re locked up.

Though the project doesn’t eliminate fossil fuels entirely, it was expected to provide annual energy savings of 20 to 25% over its anticipated 25-year life, saving an estimated $1.1 million and 1 million pounds of carbon emissions.

Other states are instituting solar panels, as well: Colorado, California and Illinois.

Water Recycling

Consider this: A correctional institution with 2,500 incarcerated residents uses at least 300,000 gallons of water per day, which typically flows to a local plant for treatment before discharging into lakes and streams.

Why not treat wastewater on prison grounds? That way, prisons can avoid relying on large municipal treatment plants and build a circular waste system.

The process isn’t perfect: It produces methane gas. But prisons can use the byproduct to heat buildings and run generators during emergencies or when solar power is running low. The remaining sludge can be converted into a biosolid similar to fertilizer that could be sold to local farmers, landscapers and homeowners for agricultural purposes.

As an ancillary benefit, incarcerated trainees can work as plant operators and learn a new vocation. Rasheem Bodiford, 30, is an incarcerated student in Florida who studies clean water technology via a college correspondence course. For him, having a plant where he can train would be invaluable.

“Hands-on experience creates opportunities and opens doors for people leaving prison,” Bodiford said. “A successful program would also show that prisoners can change for the better.”

While some green criminologists worry that unpaid training echoes malevolent labor situations of the past (like chain gangs), modern green collar training is a win-win. Most incarcerated people will eventually get out. With green job opportunities, prisoners can learn technical skills that could translate into future career pathways in a growing sector that helps the environment.

There’s also the prospect of conducting water recycling on institutional grounds to convert wastewater to drinking water. The city of Los Angeles has already declared it will move to 100% water recycling by 2035, and Florida is now a national leader in water reuse. In the Sunshine State alone, residents are expected to need an additional 1 billion gallons of water a day by 2030. States should prioritize implementing these technologies in prisons where they would benefit one of our most vulnerable populations.

Zero Waste

Over one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions come from food production. Prison food typically consists of low-quality proteins, ultra-processed foods and refined carbohydrates. In my Florida prison, we were served mostly soy patties, pastas and breads.

By growing crops on the land around prisons, institutions could offer incarcerated people a healthy plant-based diet while lowering their carbon footprint. Incarcerated residents would benefit from growing their food locally on prison grounds.

State prisons are typically built on large, remote plots of land — for security purposes and to avoid the public eye. By utilizing this open space to grow fruits and vegetables or create a fish farm, institutions can practice sustainability while promoting healthy eating habits and teaching incarcerated residents new skills in agriculture and fish farming. Maine's Mountain View Correctional Facility has its own garden, producing over 100,000 pounds of vegetables each year. 

Mahmoud Almuhtaseb, a former restaurateur who was incarcerated alongside me at Dade CI, believes reusing food waste is beneficial. He would love to grow his own organic fruits and vegetables to cook at his prison.

“Being able to learn more about the food we cook and eat would be such a great experience,” Almuhtaseb said. “There’s no down side to learning some new trades and composting food waste.”

Meanwhile, pig farmers may pay $178 per hog from birth to production for feed — but what if they formed coalitions with their neighboring prisons to repurpose food waste as pig feed? By using organic leftovers from prison kitchens, farmers could lower their production costs and prisons could stop dumping in landfills.

Composting is the next best option. Composting, which involves using natural biological processes to speed the decomposition of organic waste, produces a material that can be used as a natural fertilizer.

More than just reducing waste and improving meals, creating gardening programs could benefit the mental wellness of incarcerated people. In a system plagued by high rates of mental illness, including depression and anxiety, incarcerated residents deserve more time outdoors.

“Inside prison, you live in a box with no air or light,” said George Selimos, who is incarcerated in Miami. “Having more sunlight helps you feel more energized. Your spirits are lifted. It’s a small but important thing because it improves your mental well-being.”

Food isn’t the only waste coming out of these facilities. What about the trash?

A 2020 study in Science Advances found that the United States produced the most plastic waste of any country in the world. If prisons and jails develop teams of incarcerated people to collect and sort paper, plastic and aluminum, these items can find new lives in everyday products outside.

“I think many of us have a great desire to balance the books by doing something good,” said Gregory Vance, an incarcerated resident serving 20 years in a Florida prison. “If I knew I was living and working in a facility that’s helping the environment, I would gain satisfaction from that.”

Time for a Change

In August 2021, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a “code red for humanity” in a report by hundreds of leading climate scientists.

It was another call to action that excluded institutions like prisons and jails. But by creating sustainability within a system historically seen as a drain on society, prisons and jails could help change society’s perception of incarcerated people while also decarbonizing.

The most effective way to end harm in the criminal justice system is to, at the very least, improve prisons and jails for those living there and, at highest ambitions, abolish them entirely. Sustainability upgrades could unintentionally fuel prison expansion, but they’re more likely to be temporary improvements to an outdated and unpopular system.
Americans — even those of us behind bars — have a duty as the world’s worst polluters to leave a better planet for the generations that come after us.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Ryan M. Moser is a formerly incarcerated journalist and award-winning writer from Philadelphia. A PJP correspondent, Ryan holds reporting fellowships from both resolve Philly and the education writers association. His work can be found at Muck Rack.