National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 ‘Greening’ county jails – and saving greenbacks

By Charles Taylor

Photo courtesy of Multnomah County, Ore.

Laundry at the Inverness Jail in Multnomah County is bundled using twine banding. Before the Sustainable Jail Project began, plastic shrink wrap was used to package laundered items.

It isn’t spinning straw into gold, but turning jail inmates’ blankets into bedding for pets has meant comfy naps for shelter pups and kittens in Multnomah County. Recycling those blankets is also helping ensure a “greener” future through the county’s Sustainable Jail Project — environmentally and financially. 

It’s a trend that’s playing out across the nation with county correctional facilities seeking green building certification, composting food waste and planting gardens. These measures are helping the environment and, in some cases — like Multnomah’s — saving counties big bucks. Sustainability initiatives in FY11 resulted in more than $400,000 in cost savings for the Sheriff’s Office, according to Sheriff Dan Staton.      

“This coming year, we’re potentially looking at somewhere in the vicinity of about a million to about a million-five” — that’s dollars — Staton said. The jail has an average daily population of 1,200. Its annual budget is about $26 million.

The initiative is a project of Staton’s office and the county’s Office of Sustainability. It began as a small-scale effort in 2010, reflecting the county’s department-wide commitment to sustainability, and it won a NACo Achievement Award this year.

Jail staff and inmates have seen numerous changes since the introduction of sustainable practices that have included switching from plastic foam to reusable cups, using recycled twine to wrap laundry instead of plastic shrink-wrap and capturing, treating and recycling water used to wash clothes and bedding.​

Web Extra

  • Watch a video about Multnomah County's Sustainable Jails Project.
  • More resources about sustainable
    jails can be found

“Having this major resource user in the jail laundry really suggested that was a good place to go for some conservation effort,” said Judy Shiprack, county commissioner and chair of NACo’s Green Government Advisory Board. “When the sheriff saves money on the jail laundry, we save money, too. But it’s way more than that; we’ve really reduced our waste footprint.”

In addition to the laundry, the jail’s sustainable kitchen and sustainable purchasing have also saved money while helping the environment. Each year, the jail’s kitchen serves more than 1.5 million meals. Last year, 110,000 pounds of food waste was diverted from the landfill through composting and $140,000 was spent on local food, which the project says had a 1.75 multiplier effect to the local economy.

Green purchasing practices have saved more than $250,000 a year by buying disinfectants in bulk rather than individual bottles. The jail went from using 800,000 plastic foam cups per year to reusable cups for a $9,100 annual savings.

 “One of the really helpful collateral benefits of the sustainable jail project,” Shiprack said, “is that we’ve gone from looking at these procurements as supplies to use, so that now we look at them as resources to manage.”

Future objectives of the Sustainable Jail Project include:

  • digitizing the jail’s law library, saving about $70,000 annually
  • reducing total energy use of the jails 20 percent by 2020, and
  • reducing water use in county jails 10 percent by 2015.

In Alameda County, Calif., officials unveiled a smart-grid project earlier this year at the Santa Rita Jail, which has had a 1.2 megawatt rooftop solar system since 2002. It also uses fuel cell technology and has five small wind turbines. The project was partly funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission.

“Santa Rita Jail now has the capability to ‘island’ itself off the main utility grid and independently generate and store its own energy,” explained Nate Miley, Alameda County supervisor and board president. “We’re not only excited by what we’ve accomplished with this project, but see its application with hospitals and other facilities that need to remain operational in an emergency.” The jail has a population of about 4,000 inmates.

New Mexico’s Los Alamos County Justice Center recently received the second highest “green” certification from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), qualifying as a LEED Gold building (Platinum is the highest category). Its green features include an improved thermal building envelope, energy-efficienct glazing, an overhang shading system, high-efficiency mechanical systems, a rainwater drip irrigation system and a reflective roofing system.

Staton, the Multnomah County sheriff, sees the movement toward sustainable jails as a “can’t lose” proposition. “You’re helping out the environment; you’re helping out your inmates; you’re looking after your staff. You’re looking after the taxpayer, and you’re still maintaining your same core service levels by generating savings by trying to tap into other ideas.”