architecture politics

Can the Ministry of Justice deliver green prisons?

This week the Ministry of Justice announced a significant investment in solar power on its prisons. Three prisons are getting solar installations this year, and a further 16 next year. In total it will involve 16,000 panels at a cost of £12 million – which will pay for itself in energy savings of an estimated £800,000 a year.

These installations are expected to cover around 20% of the electricity needs of the prisons. It’s a step in the right direction as the Ministry considers its role in the UK’s net zero carbon target for 2050. Other initiatives include electrical charging points, which are being installed at 45 different sites in support of the eventual transition to fully electrical vehicle fleets.

Given the state of Britain’s prisons, getting them to zero carbon is going to be a very tall order. The Ministry of Justice has come late to the idea that they have environmental responsibilities, and has been rebuked in the past for setting themselves very easy targets and still failing to meet them. New government plans are forcing them to up their game, and there is some real progress to see in the design of the country’s newer prisons.

England is currently building a suite of new prisons, part of a promised ‘crackdown on crime’. The benefits of prison time as an effective long term solution to crime are dubious in my opinion. The prison system is a huge source of injustice in itself, but that’s for another time. I’m going to reserve my comments for sustainability here.

There are two waves of new prisons, three being built at the moment and four more in the pipeline. Both represent steps forward in design for sustainability. The ones under construction aim for an ‘excellent’ BREEAM rating, and a 70% improvement in emissions on the country’s newest prisons. Woodland, wildflower and pond habitat areas are incorporated both inside and outside the prison’s boundary, aiming for a net gain in biodiversity. They have gardens and allotments.

The second stage is in development at the moment. Using the lessons learned from wave one, the next four will go one better and pitch at BREEAM ‘outstanding’, and an 85% improvement in emissions. (Embedded carbon has been considered too, and the sites will be using recycled steel and concrete, saving 40,000 tonnes of CO2.) These prisons will be a whisker from zero carbon, because they are designed to be all electric. No gas boilers here that will have to be ripped out later. They are well insulated, equipped with solar panels and heat pumps. Acheiving zero carbon will depend on the electricity grid, so it’s ‘net zero ready’ if you like, rather than being there on opening day.

For all the whining from Conservative backbenchers about the cost of net zero, these new prisons are a case study in the benefits of efficiency. Over the next 60 years, these four prisons will save an estimated £100 million in energy costs.

In the next 60 years, I also hope to see some deeper rethinking about prisons and their role in rehabilitation. I hope to see an end to privatisation of prisons and the dangerous incentives created when shareholders profit from incarceration. I hope to see a shift towards restorative rather than punitive justice that leads to a reduction in prison places – beginning with the oldest and least efficient prisons, many of which are barely humane anyway. But we’re always going to need a certain amount of prison capacity. The lower carbon that can be, the better.

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