Evidence-Based Prison Design

Posted by Monica Snellings

In 2006 the State of Washington conducted an exhaustive study on evidenced-based policy options for reducing future prison construction, criminal-justice costs, and crime rates. Since that time Washington has implemented a successful and growing program called the Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP).

This multi-site partnership with Evergreen State College aims to “connect prisons with nature,” both through science-based work programs for inmates and through the implementation of sustainable design features in the physical plant of the prison itself.  While acknowledging that each corrections institution is unique, SPP has established five goals for every program developed:

  1. Partnerships and collaborations with multiple benefits
  2. Bringing nature “inside”
  3. Engagement and education
  4. Safe and sustainable operations
  5. Evaluation, dissemination, and tracking

Beekeeping, organic gardening and composting, and rearing endangered species for release — including the Oregon Spotted Frog and Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies — are some of the projects prisoners are involved in. Participating facilities have constructed garden plots, greenhouses, science labs, and a range of water- and energy-conservation mechanisms.

The Washington State Department of Corrections (WDOC) is responsible for more than 16,000 inmates at 12 prisons in Washington — a commitment that draws heavily on the state’s natural resources and costs taxpayers more than $1 billion annually. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy has estimated that, had the state kept up with national incarceration trends, Washington’s prison population would be about 25,000 today.

While the lower prison population numbers cannot be attributed directly to the SPP program, the program’s effectiveness can be measured in graduating inmates’ low recidivism rates: At Mission Creek Prison, for example, of the 18 SPP participants who have been released, none have returned to prison and one-third are now employed. Other assessment efforts suggest that the program develops prisoners’ teamwork and other interpersonal skills and provides exposure to more job options upon reentry. The program plans ongoing efforts to track “how this type of work affects offender recidivism and rates of post-release employment.

Image via Sustainability in Prisons Project.