Prison: Going green saves green

Some of the biggest improvements have involved harnessing technology to increase efficiency.

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Washington State Penitentiary sustainability committee chairman Richard Howerton, smiles as pulls up a carrot that he didn't realize had been planted in the "lettuce field."

WALLA WALLA -- While the Walla Walla State Penitentiary greenhouse and garden are the showcase of the penitentiary's recent sustainability initiative, administrators say that's only one aspect of a larger, more comprehensive project.

While Penitentiary Superintendent Stephen Sinclair maintains that the bottom-line of sustainability efforts is "saving taxpayers a few dollars," budget cuts and DOC directives have been integral in shifting penitentiary policy toward practices that are more economically, and environmentally, prudent.

According to administrators, the pressure to do some sustainability soul-searching has mainly come from external political and economic forces, but negotiating government mandates and shrinking budgets is a task left up to prison staff and administrators. To meet these demands, six months ago Sinclair and other prison administrators created a 30-member sustainability committee, chaired by construction/project coordinator Richard Howerton.

Howerton said that for the past 15 years the prison has implemented a number of energy- and cost-saving measures that promoted green policies, although they were not explicitly billed as such.

But penitentiary administrators say their sustainability initiative has meant more than just the repainting old policies with a fresh-coat of in buzzwords. Rather, Sinclair says, "the filter of sustainability" has provided a new perspective and new opportunities for cutting-costs.

According to staff, since the creation of the sustainability committee, the 30 staff members from every facet of penitentiary operations have been engaging one another and sharing their perspectives on sustainability to find new ways to cut costs in environmentally responsible ways -- and the results have been significant.

According to Howerton, some of the biggest improvements have involved harnessing technology to increase efficiency. Some of these improvements include: a digital energy-tracking system that helps pinpoint areas of energy waste, an electronic monitoring system for the HVAC systems that allows technicians to fix wasteful (and expensive) malfunctions on-the-fly, and an energy-saving lighting upgrade for the penitentiary's East Complex, which is 60 percent funded by Pacific Power.

Additionally, Howerton said new construction at the penitentiary is now being done as sustainably as possible, with 11 new LEED "Green" certified buildings added this year.

"On our new construction up here, we're really leaning toward all sustainability. Last project we had 80 percent all recyclables. We're doing all kinds of new technology ... everything we've done here and we're going to do in the future, is based on sustainability," Howerton said.

Although the greenhouses, gardens and state-of-the-art technologies have been important pieces of the sustainability puzzle, prison administrators agree some of the biggest innovations involved changing seemingly mundane policies and staff habits to garner significant financial and environmental savings.

"Just by putting out what we were spending on office items, that people didn't even realize we we're wasting; like paper and toilet paper and white out ... in three months our office supplies and were reduced by $14,000," said Shari Hall, public information officer. Hall said the current sustainability policies have been infectious as employees and departments within the prison compete to reduce waste.

Another small change with potentially profound savings that is being discussed is replacing the outmoded incandescent bulbs used by prisoners with compact fluorescents or LEDs.

"You make one little change like that and impact, potentially 2,300 users and that adds up to savings. Little bits and pieces, we'll take 'em all. You know, I think we're just getting started, now that we have a work group we're focused on it," Sinclair said.

Omar Ihmoda can be reached at omarihmoda@wwub.com.

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