Governor Schwarzenegger’s Green Building Initiative and California’s prisons

The U.S. has the highest prison population in the world, and California is the state with the most prisons. The largely rural San Joaquin Valley where I have spent most of my life is home to the majority of California’s prisons built since 1980, including the largest women’s prison in the world in Chowchilla, a town with a population of 18,780.
The prisons affect the environment of the San Joaquin Valley, an area with one of the worst air basins in the country. According to a 2004 article in Art Journal, the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) blamed the prisons “for increased traffic flow in rural areas, which in turn contributes significantly to the rise of air pollution in the Central Valley.” The article went on to point out that “some people have compared the construction of prisons in the Central Valley to the creation of small, densely populated, hinterland cities in the toll that they exact on the existing landscape.”

Green Building Initiative and California’s prisons
Last week several California energy companies, Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Gas Co., gave $6.5 million to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to help pay for energy-saving retrofits at sixteen prisons. The companies contributed to the energy-saving retrofit projects as a response to California’s Green Building Initiative which requires state agencies to reduce energy 20 percent by 2015 in their buildings.
The retrofits will save 25 million kilowatt hours of electricity, equivalent to removing 3,770 cars from the road. California taxpayers will save a projected $3.2 million in annual savings.
Of the sixteen prisons undergoing retrofits, seven are in the San Joaquin Valley. Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla is one of seven Valley prisons receiving retrofits. The retrofits at Valley State Prison, which include lighting improvements, kitchen equipment upgrade, and laundry improvements, are estimated to save $174,954.
“Our agency launched 16 retrofit projects at a dozen sites across the state to meet the governor’s ambitious energy-efficiency mandate,” said CDCR Secretary Matt Cate. “We expect these improvements to reduce our energy costs by $3.2 million a year.”
“We applaud Secretary Cate and the state department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for their leadership and commitment to energy efficiency,” said Anne Shen Smith, senior vice president of customer services for San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Gas Co. “Their efforts serve as a model for all other state agencies in saving energy and protecting our environment.”
Other energy saving measures
The CDCR became the first California state agency to join the Cool Planet Project, which rewards companies and organizations that install energy-saving projects and promote action concerning climate change, last week. CDCR installed projects that saved 8,640,013 kilowatt-hours, or 2,607 tons of greenhouse gases (GHG). As a result the CDCR received first year’s membership to The California Climate Registry, which tracks energy use and GHG emissions.
Since 2006, the CDCR installed two solar power plants at two of its prisons (Chuckawalla Valley and Ironwood) which provide 25 percent of the power needed. The Ironwood solar power plant saves about $50,000 a year for the medium-security prison over 200 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.
Six other prisons will have solar power plants. Wasco State prison in the southern San Joaquin Valley town is slated for a solar power plant. Each solar plant will produce over one megawatt of electricity every year, enough to power 226 homes.
Greening prisons creates jobs
The Center for American Progress published a report titled, “Green Economic Recovery Program Impact on California.” The report defined a “green economic recovery” program as including building retrofits, mass transit and freight rail, smart grid electrical transmission systems, wind energy, solar energy, and advanced biofuels. A green economic recovery program in California will create an estimated 235,198 jobs in two years, which would reduce California’s unemployment rate from the current 7.0 to 5.7.
The authors of Job Opportunities for the Green Economy, Robert Pollin ad Jeannette Wicks-Lim of the Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts, state that fighting climate change and transforming the U.S. into a “green economy” will require “millions of people, performing the jobs needed to build the green economy.” The authors define a green economy as including all of the same categories as the Center for American Progress report’s “green economic recovery program.”,content=2164

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by

4 responses

  1. Okay… this is all well an good, but let’s look at the bigger, triple bottom line picture. An overabundance of prisons is a warning sign for society, and a society that tries to solve its social ills buy building more prisons is a sick society. A sick society can never hope to handle the economic and environmental challenges we face.
    I would much rather see this money spent training those inmates to do something useful with their lives, and/or getting rid of our useless drug war than on “greening” some prison buildings. I’m sure there’s a direct environmental footprint for a prison, but think the social cost of one is far greater!

  2. Fascinating article, Gina. I always heard that farming was a major contributor to the air quality issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Do you have any figures on the contributions of the prison industry vs. farming?

  3. I agree with you, Chet. I used to go in to the women’s prison in Chowchilla, the largest in the world, and help conduct a chapel service. However, that does not negate the need to green the prison buildings. I invite you to come to the San Joaquin Valley and breath our polluted air. Then tell me that greening buildings is not important.

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