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Prisons becoming new ally in eco-friendly movement

Friday, July 1, 2011

Editor's note: The following article was submitted by Nathan Cummins and Terrell Moore, members of the DePauw Environmental Policy Project, who attended a recent conference on sustainable prisons.

The environmental movement in America has a new ally. No, not a public utility, not a Hollywood celebrity, but prisons. Over the past week, we joined dozens of prison officials, eco-friendly business representatives, and technical experts in Indianapolis for the first "National Symposium on Sustainable Corrections."

Indiana was chosen to host the conference because our state has emerged as a leader in prison sustainability initiatives. The medium-security prison at Putnamville, for example, has saved $1.75 million in natural gas cost over the past three-and-a-half years and reduced its carbon footprint by implementing, among other initiatives, a comprehensive recycling program.

The results are impressive. In the last five years, Putnamville has cut its trash bill by more than $5,000 per month despite an increase in its population of 1,000 inmates, and now makes money from selling recyclable materials. During our tour of the facility we also observed their new energy-efficient biomass boiler and a wind turbine that powers two buildings.

Through these initiatives, Putnamville has saved Hoosier taxpayers money and become a model for other Indiana prisons to emulate.

New sustainability initiatives in prisons like Putnamville not only cut costs, but also contribute useful community services. Prisons in the state of Washington partner with scientists to help research and conserve Washington's native prairies and endangered species.

At Putnamville, instead of dumping excess food into a landfill, it is used to create compost that is donated to the local community.

New programs in prisons also provide innovative job training. The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) in Houston, Texas helps inmates become environmentally literate and prepared to enter the green job market while encouraging them to become future entrepreneurial leaders in the industry. The five-month curriculum teaches prisoners interviewing techniques, business etiquette, and other skills needed to be successful.

Past winners of a PEP competition included a student who planned to start a business servicing alternative power sources, and another who would plant trees as part of his irrigation business. Over the last seven years, less than 10 percent of graduates from PEP have gone back to prison.

Since the Prison Entrepreneurship Program graduated its first students, approximately 75 have gone on to start businesses, 50 of which are still in operation despite economic hardship.

Gov. Mitch Daniels has often stressed the importance of reducing costs and providing better services for Indiana. We are glad to see that the Indiana Department of Correction is taking this message to heart. Tommy Norris, CEO of GreenPrisons.org, stated that sustainable prisons are a "positive experience all the way around." Preliminary results from Indiana's efforts to save taxpayer money while reducing its environmental footprint suggest that Norris is on the right track.

Nathan Cummins and Terrell Moore are members of the DePauw Environmental Policy Project, Greencastle.

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