Cognitive Dissonance: A Green Jail?

homer-simpson-dohWhen I saw the following headline and lede paragraph from our local daily newspaper, here in Bellingham, Washington, in lovely Whatcom County, it really made my head hurt.

Whatcom council wants more cost info before deciding jail ‘LEED’ status

Whatcom County leaders are not ready to give up on building the new jail in Ferndale to a widely recognized green-building standard, despite the high-energy needs of the facility.

–Bellingham Herald

LEED, for anyone not familiar with sustainable building practices, is, as the Herald describes, THE standard for sustainable buildings, but the question that begs asking is:

How sustainable is it to have over two million people incarcerated in the U.S.?

LEED standards, sadly, don’t apparently consider this question at all, and, according to the New York Times, this is not at all a unique situation.

While it is admirable that, as the Herald reported:

[Whatcom County] committed in 2005 to constructing all public buildings to the LEED silver standard, “where feasible.”

…the Times reports:

The Washington State Department of Corrections boasts 34 LEED-certified facilities, with 923,789 square feet of LEED-certified space added in fiscal year 2008 alone.

Irony can sometimes be funny.

This is decidedly not one of those times.

3 thoughts on “Cognitive Dissonance: A Green Jail?

  1. I saw the irony in this as well. Thanks for writing about it.

    Jailing is failing, and as a society we are experiencing what my kids would call as epic fail. Warehousing people–most of whom have a number of addressable issues, ranging from mental illness and chemical dependencies to lack of education–and access to education to poverty–is the antithesis of sustainable.

    Building the greenest facility in the world on a greenfield, and requiring utilities extension that will further accelerate greenfield development is also anti-green, no mater the LEED score. If being ‘green’ is about outcomes, rather than PR, the ‘green’ approach here would involve rehabilitating the existing jail (along with the whole damn courthouse; we got taken for a ride when it was built, not that anyone is owning responsibility, despite the fact that key political players are still around who proclaimed it a great deal at the time) and also rehabilitating the residents thereof.

    We have some programs in place–drug court, teen court–that are effective; we need more educational inreach into the jail, more treatment services; more meaningful contact with family and friends–all empirically demonstrated to reduce recidivism. We need training for meaningful employment, and less ostracism of ex-cons. These are all more efficiently accomplished with a jail close to those services; i.e., at its current location.

    These approaches are not only ‘greener’ than what is pro[posed, they are also more ethical–and less costly in the long run. As Mark Twain noted over a century ago, “Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail.” The reverse also holds; if you want to close or reduce the demand for jails, we need to put resources towards root causes, instead of building edifices which bankrupt us financially and morally.

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