Achieving Sustainability within Correctional Industries


Achieving Sustainability within Correctional Industries
By Paul Horton, Principal, Paul Horton Consulting Group, LLC and Nancy Cebula, Owner, People in Charge

A major barrier to effective implementation of sustainability is confusion around the term sustainability itself.  Nearly everyone you ask has a different answer and this tendency can get in the way of straightforward decision making.  Furthermore, ‘green’ does not necessarily imply sustainability. Well-intentioned efforts to “be green” can produce discrete and often disconnected projects or initiatives that can fall far short of what is possible or even optimal.

The most commonly used definition of sustainable development around the world comes from of the UN Environmental Commission’s Brundtland report: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Although this definition has been effective in bringing about a new, widespread conceptual understanding of our responsibility with respect to our impact on the environment, it does not provide sufficient guidance on how to navigate the many complex day-to-day or long-term strategic decisions necessary to bring about true sustainability.

Lack of a common understanding of sustainability (and one based on specific, non-negotiable scientific–or first order–principles), can significantly inhibit collaboration, creativity, and identification and exploitation of natural synergies.  It can also contribute to the tendency of many to get lost in complexity, focusing on the tactics and downstream details rather than more up-stream decisions that can help groups of individuals—whether they are experts or non-experts—collectively address problems before they occur. 

The non-profit organization The Natural Step provides a clear explanation of what achieving sustainability would look like and this specific guidance is more useful.  The Natural Step System Conditions for sustainability were derived through a process of determining the basic mechanisms by which natural life sustaining systems can be destroyed, and then describing the opposite of those mechanisms.  Following are what The Natural Step calls the four system conditions for sustainability.

In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing…

  1. Concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust
  2. Concentrations of substances produced by society
  3. Degradation by physical means
  4. And, in that society, human needs are met worldwide

Ultimately, any community or organization wishing to become sustainable must seek to: 

  1. Substitute certain minerals that are scarce in nature with others that are more abundant, using and recycling all mined materials efficiently, and systematically reducing dependence on fossil fuels [System Condition #1].

Put another way, this means reducing dependence on fossil fuels, using renewable energy, and switching to nontoxic, reusable materials in order to avoid the spread of hazardous levels of mined metals & pollutants. For instance, the Missouri Department of Corrections switched from daily mail pick-up and delivery to and from the Capital to three times per week, significantly reducing its dependence on fossil fuels.  Additionally, perimeter cameras were installed so that vehicle patrols would not need to be done continually, saving fuel while also freeing up staff for other duties and increasing security with 24/7 perimeter scrutiny.  

  1. Systematically substituting certain persistent and unnatural compounds with ones that are normally abundant or break down more easily in nature, and using all substances produced by society efficiently [System Condition #2].

Put another way, this means using safe, biodegradable substances that do not cause the spread of toxins in the environment.  For instance, in Maine, the State Prison Industries has developed a program that packages and distributes ‘green’ cleaning supplies. Their customers include several correctional facilities in the State as well as another government agency and a private company.

  1. Protecting eco-system diversity by systematically pursuing the most productive and efficient use of resources and land, and exercising caution in all kinds of modification of nature [System Condition #3].

Put another way, this means protecting our water, air, and soil and avoiding over-paving, over-harvesting, over-fishing, etc.  For example, the Connecticut Women’s Prisons composts 100% of its kitchen waste, reducing waste to the landfill and producing valuable compost for soil building and local food production.

  1. Contributing as much as [it] can to the meeting of human needs in society and worldwide [System Condition #4].

Examples are many among correctional industries agencies across the US.  Simply put, we are in alignment with System Condition #4 when we use all of our resources efficiently, fairly and responsibly.  In this way, the needs of all people on whom we have an impact—present and future—stand the best chance of being met.

A simple way to think about using the four Natural Step system conditions for sustainability is to ask a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question at any decision-point within an organization, for instance, the purchase of new office furniture or whether or not to switch to a different brand of cleaning product.

Does this decision: Yes No
  • decrease dependence on materials from the earth’s crust?
  • decrease dependence on compounds produced by society that accumulate in nature?
  • increase the physical basis for productivity and biodiversity in nature?
  • increase the efficiency and fairness with which resources are used?

If the answer is yes then the decision is probably a good one.  If the answer is no, then a series of other questions should be asked.  For instance, can we do without this material, product or substance?  Can we find a substitute for it until which time we can eliminate it altogether?  If not, how can we systematically reduce our dependence on it?

In addition, each organization is free to develop its own principles of success based on the minimum requirements of these sustainability principles.  For instance, a particular correctional industries agency might wish to specify additional social principles based on the needs of its staff and/or offenders/inmates.  

Barrier number two

Many organizations fail to recognize that achieving sustainability requires a transition from what to do practices to how you do it practices. Shifting an organization from a traditional, linear “take-make-waste” system to a more circular “borrow-use-return” or “cradle-to-cradle” model requires a fundamental change in thinking, ingrained behaviors, and ways of working across departments and disciplines. Put simply, it requires a fundamental shift in culture. Until this change in culture occurs, departments will tend to continue to work independently of one another (and sometimes against each other), because one does not know fully what the other is doing, with all the consequential missed connections and synergies.

It is critical that correctional industries agencies manage change and not let the changes manage them in these fast-moving, fast-changing times. Using a principle-based approach to change management can give leaders and others a solid framework. Some useful organizational change principles include:[I]

  • Top leadership is actively and visibly engaged
    • Sponsorship from the leader shows the organization and the stakeholders that this is an important effort and is getting support from the top
    • Successful change leaders are transparent, honest, and committed for the long haul
  • Widen the circle of involvement
    • Encourage participation from as many staff and other stakeholders as possible in the change effort
    • Create communication processes to share information about the change effort
  • Create a dynamic vision of the future state and action plans to implement it
    • Involve people from across the organization, different levels, different departments
    • Set up a team to monitor progress on the whole implementation plan
  • Create communities for action
    • The more people can feel ownership of the change effort, the more enthusiastically they will support and implement changes
    • Hold people accountable for their part of the change effort through monitoring and evaluating progress
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate
    • Share stories of accomplishments and encourage feedback through a variety of communication methods
    • Celebrate short-term successes and publicize them to let people know that the change is happening and it has agency backing
[I]Based on Terms of Engagement (Richard Axelrod. 2010) and Organizational Change Principles and Process