Cultivating life behind bars

Programs that combine recycling, clean energy and inmate training are worth the time it takes to watch them grow

   A number of prisons and correctional facilities today are growing their tomatoes and eating them, too. "Green" prisons that incorporate farming and sustainability programs reap real benefits. Aside from saving money and reducing waste, they are also shown to have enormous impact on the inmates themselves -- involving them in a host of maintenance activities and providing useful job skills upon release. Some even argue the programs go a long way in reducing recidivism. Maybe your corrections facility is looking for ways to cut costs and engage its inmate population. If so, on-site gardens and organic farms are a great place to start. But why stop there? Sustainability and green training initiatives can take on many forms.

Getting green off the ground

   From 1853 to 1979 the Southeast Correctional Institution (SCI) in Lancaster, Ohio had detained adjudicated juveniles, and in 1980 became an adult state correctional facility. Around the same time, the minimum to medium security prison adopted a farming operation that continues to be worked by offenders and supervised by a civilian staff. Now SCI, along with Vera Institute and the Ohio Green Prison Project (OGPP), is developing a pilot project to demonstrate that training incarcerated people to retrofit prisons with energy-efficient green technology can make facilities more cost-effective. The project will provide trainees with job skills to prepare them for careers in the burgeoning green economy, making them more likely to succeed when they return to their communities. The lower operating and energy costs are expected to result in savings for SCI and Ohio taxpayers.

   During her early days at SCI, Warden Sheri Duffey recalls how she sensed a growing interest in ecology programs. "I had offenders talking to me a lot about 'let's get some green things going on'," says Duffey. "They wanted to compost, and they do a lot of gardening. With the future prospect of green jobs growing more than any other job right now, it only makes sense to me that we started training offenders for sustainability."

   What Duffey hopes to accomplish in partnership with OGPP is to get green training projects off the ground. Duffey, who started her career as a corrections officer in 1988 and worked her way up through the custody ranks, has some ideas to get started. She wants to see an existing vacant building on facility grounds become a "green academy" of sorts -- a self-sustaining building in and of itself. After completing a course, trainees could apply what they've learned at the institution, and perhaps even after their release. Duffey hopes the initiative would inspire and educate members of the community, as well.

   SCI is looking to hire licensed instructors, as well as bring in outside companies to volunteer, look at projects and introduce offenders to what's available on the outside. Inmates would sit in on the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. training classes before being processed back into the main compound. Each individual must meet his or her requirements. The Green Training Academy would ideally offer an introduction to things like solar panel installation and maintenance, and weatherization.

   "Most definitely, we're looking at improving our energy efficiency. And we're looking to save money, as well," says Duffey.

Back to school

   The National Institute of Corrections has provided SCI with some technical assistance, but Duffey says she's also been inspired by programs happening in Washington State. At the Stafford Creek Corrections Center (SCCC), just 5 miles outside of Aberdeen, Wash., immaculately cultivated gardens and greenhouses share real estate with high-volt fences and austere watchtowers. In this maximum security prison, residents bide their "hard time" sitting in on ecology lessons that one would expect to find in some of the nation's best institutes of higher learning.

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