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VOL. 10 | NO. 32 | Saturday, August 5, 2017

Seeing the Light

What started as a way to save a little money on utilities has become a green brigade at the Shelby County Division of Corrections

By Don Wade

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Four years ago, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell was in Knoxville for a college football game. But with several hours before kickoff, he took a side trip to view the green initiatives at the Knox County Jail.

“I walked away thinking there’s such potential here,” said Luttrell, who had been a prison warden earlier in his career.

Soon afterward, then-Shelby County Division of Corrections director James Coleman was telling Bailey Waits, who is the facilities and operations manager for Shelby County Corrections, he wanted him to go to Indiana. There was a conference on prisons going green and Coleman wanted Waits to attend and to see what was being done at those facilities.

Waits was less than enthusiastic about the assignment.

“OK,” Waits told his boss, “if you want to go up there and waste money, send me on the trip.”

What has happened since has been nothing less than the green/sustainability version of a religious conversion. Waits saw the light. Literally, if you consider this eventually turned into the Shelby County Corrections Center by Shelby Farms Park converting from fluorescent lighting to LED lighting, a huge contributor to monthly utility savings now estimated at $82,000 per month – or $884,000 per year.

What Waits originally figured would be a waste of time and taxpayer money has transformed into substantial savings and, in some cases, new revenue.

But four years ago, it was almost more than Waits could comprehend. They were that far behind. So that first night, he returned to his hotel and called Coleman.

“They should fire the both of us,” Waits said.


“It was kind of a tongue-in-cheek thing,” Waits says now of his call to Coleman, who later would resign for unrelated reasons. “But I thought for all the years I’ve been in this business, we’ve given away a lot of stuff or thrown away a lot of stuff.”

This really hit home when Tommy Norris, founder and CEO of GreenPrisons.org and a federal prisons administrator for more than 30 years, visited the Shelby County Corrections Center. Waits showed him the recycling program that had been started and that used inmates for labor.

“We were pretty proud of it,” Waits said.

But then Norris had a question: “How much you making on a bale?”

“We’re giving it away,” Waits answered.

“Bailey, you can sell that,” Norris told him.

And so now they do, making $2,000 to $4,000 per month, plus saving another $3,500 monthly in hauling fees.

Norris was named chair of the Sustainability Committee for the American Correctional Association (ACA) in January 2010, and continues to hold that position. In August of 2011, he started GreenPrisons.org.

He admits that at the beginning, “I knew nothing about green.”

What he did know, what everyone who has worked in corrections knows to be true, is that housing thousands of inmates in a secure manner is not a prescription for efficiency.

“Prisons are extremely costly,” Luttrell said.

“Prisons normally are high-waste,” said Waits. “You don’t want trash in your buildings and will dump three or four times a day because inmates can hide stuff in it, contraband. Start fires with it. A lot of bad stuff.”

Since starting GreenPrisons.org, Norris has seen much positive change, albeit at a slow pace.

“You know that iceberg splitting off from Greenland that’s been big news, happens once a millennium?” Norris said. “That’s sort of how change happen in corrections. When you vary from tried-and-true practices there could be a security risk and our main mission is keep them inside the fence.”

States out West, such as California, Oregon and Washington, have been ahead on going green and that has translated to corrections, Norris says. Same for states in the Northeast, such as Massachusetts, New York and Vermont.

Indiana, Ohio and now Shelby County stand out in the middle of the country for going green.

“In the South, we’re hard-headed when it comes to this stuff,” Waits said. “We think it’s a waste of money. And I was one of those guys four years ago. Now, if it’s not a green part I won’t buy it. Yeah, it might cost me more on the front end, but two years from now I’ve paid for it and I’m saving. That’s the way I look at everything I buy.”


Since 2014, there has been a growing list of green projects at the Shelby County Division of Corrections (SCDC). Three years, ago, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) provided a $250,000 Clean Energy Grant. The SCDC provided $288,850 in matching funds for a total of $538,850. Smaller grants have followed.

In 2017, application was made to TDEC for a Waste Reduction Grant totaling $146,600, including matching funds from the SCDC.

Among the projects already in progress, according to Jenna Thompson, administrator for the Memphis-Shelby County Office of Sustainability:

• Solar hot water heating for inmate housing units. The technology demonstrated a 50 percent reduction in natural gas usage. Also, four inmates and four staff members were certified to install the solar hot water system – thus creating a marketable skill.

• HVAC upgrades to high-efficiency systems have lowered utility bills by using less energy to operate, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and removed humidity from the air, which in turn reduces mold and other airborne issues.

• Lighting retrofits from fluorescent bulbs to LEDs (light emitting diodes). Approximately 60 percent of buildings have been retrofitted. The four inmates certified on the solar hot water were also certified in the conversion program. The LED retrofits improve security, provide consistent lighting, and significantly reduce the energy load.

• An Ozone Laundry System reduced hot water usage by 90 percent and reduced the total cost for laundry chemicals by more than 50 percent.

These combined initiatives have generated a savings of approximately $82,000 per month in utility bills. Additionally:

• Recycling at the facility includes the collection of waste at all county office buildings, averaging 35-40 bales with hopes for expansion. This program saves landfill fees by as much as $3,500 per month and can generate income from $2,000-$4,000 per month. This program is another job training opportunity for inmates.

• Metal recycling and reuse of old HVAC parts has saved more than $200,000 in maintenance fees.

• Installed antimicrobial shower coating in several inmate housing units, eliminating the need for the use of harsh chemicals.

Waits says they have 43 buildings to maintain, 110 acres inside the fence line, about 300 acres total counting farm land. The corrections center can house up to 3,600 inmates, but currently has about half that number and most of them are men.

Luttrell notes that buildings are also old and were constructed in stages going back to the late 1920s.

“The green prison program has shown a lot can be done with antiquated buildings … but only so much can be done with antiquated buildings,” he said. “It’s costly when we talk about retrofitting old buildings (schools being a good example). At some point, it’s more efficient to replace old buildings.”

That said, Luttrell says the county’s main administration building underwent a $20 million renovation and now saves about $600,000 a year in utilities.

The Shelby County Corrections Center, as far as Waits knows, is the first prison to use pervious paving – recycled rubber that can be especially effective around trees in place of steel grates, and that will greatly reduce water runoff. It’s even being used around a few trees on Main Street Downtown.

“It looks like mulch. It’s clean,” Waits said. “All you gotta do is take a water hose and wash it off or let it rain on it. Dade County in Florida put it on all their streets and cut their on-the-job injuries 90 percent.”


The next step, Waits hopes, is getting the grant for a food waste dehydrator to greatly reduce waste going out of the prison and to the landfill.

John Butler, president of Agricenter International, not only applauds the efforts at the prison but hopes to become more involved; already, Agricenter uses inmates on work lines. A food waste dehydrator could make for a logical partnership, too.

“We’re gonna test that and determine if it has value to be certified organic and in turn use it as fertilizer,” Butler said. “You’re taking a product that had been going into a landfill as waste. As a taxpayer, you gotta love that.”

While Waits, 53, only recently learned about green sustainability, he was grounded in the idea of not being wasteful from an early age. He grew up in rural Millington and recalls, “We didn’t grow up poor, but I wore hand-me-down clothes from my brothers. I guess it was the way I was brought up with my dad – don’t ever be satisfied with where we were at. You want to be better.

“It’s wound up kinda being a competition between us here in Shelby County and up in Indiana and Ohio,” he continued. “They’re the two frontrunners in this and we want to beat them in everything.”

Said Luttrell: “Bailey has seen a renaissance in his career with this. It was almost like an epiphany for him.”

The ultimate goal: becoming a zero-waste prison.

“It’s kind of like curing cancer in our time,” Luttrell said. “Worthy goal. And in creating higher standards you make progress.”

Continued progress in going green is an attainable goal, same as preparing inmates for their return to society. No, you can’t change them all. But Waits notes their recidivism rate is at 36 percent – well below the national average of 50 percent.

“We want to change the behavior that got you here,” Waits said. “Monitor you, help you get a job. We don’t want to see you come back.”

In that way, too, let no natural resource go to waste.

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