As the country reckons with its past, present, and future, and with itself in a very real and raw way, I want to draw attention to one of the many failings of the prison industry: its carbon footprint.
The prison where I am held captive, Pocahontas State Correctional Center (PSCC), is deep in the mountains of Virginia, only a few hours from Charlottesville, Virginia. There are approximately 12 prisons within an hour drive of here, in what was once coal country. These prisons are of varying size. PSCC’s 15-20 acre complex is one of the smaller ones. It sits on a clear cut top of a mountain that holds up to 1,000 captives and roughly 100 staff.
PSCC consumes what seems to me, an enormous amount of power, especially when considering that it does not even supply a large number of jobs.
This compound contains a total of five buildings. Four of those hold us prisoners, each one being made of three pods holding 80 individuals each. Each pod contains 40 two-person cells, which form a ring around a central common area. They look like warehouses. The fifth building contains a myriad of multipurpose areas that include: Solitary confinement, medical, laundry, visitation, library, treatment, and more.
For the purposes of this piece, I will focus most of my attention on the areas housing the prisoners.
The first and most easily identified point of consumption would be the light towers. I have been able to count ten from various viewpoints, but there may be a couple more I’m not able to see.
All numbers I’m providing have been rounded down, which will show just how much power is being used while also eliminating claims of exaggeration.
Of the ten light towers, each one has eight 1,000-watt lights. Four of these are metal halide lamps, four are high pressure sodium bulbs, both of which require special disposal. This means that the towers use a total of 80 kilowatts of lights that are on from dusk to dawn, 365 days a year. They run from ten hours a day in the summer months up to 16 hours a day in the winter, which means they consume 800 to 1,280 kilowatts an hour. This does not include a large number of other halogen light fixtures on the outside of every building. I’m not sure what the wattage of these exterior lights are, but they seem to be akin to the halogen lights on a car.
That is only the exterior of the buildings. The interior also consumes a lot of power.
We have four buildings, each one consisting of three wings, or pods, branching from a central hallway. Each pod has 40 cells with two men each. That’s 120 cells per building, 480 total in the camp, excluding solitary and medical. Each cell has a fluorescent light fixture with two 40-watt bulbs and a 20-watt bulb. The last is a security bulb that operates around the clock, wreaking havoc with our circadian cycles and our production of melatonin.
Each pod, therefore, uses 3,200 watts of lights in the cells alone. The common area has 15 more 4-bulb fixtures, which adds up to another 2,400 watts, for a grand total of 5,600 watts per pod. Multiply that number by the three pods per building, and we get 16,800 watts. Take that number, multiply it by four buildings, and we get a total of 67,200 watts. In the summer months, they consume 672 kilowatts an hour.
Excluded from this calculation are 3 ice machines, 3 microwaves, 3 tablet kiosks (which allow us to download electronic mail, music, etc.), 18 phones, 3 water heaters, and 1 AC system per pod. The guards’ booth also has lights, computers, phones, radio and separate hot water and AC, and there are hallway and office lights. There is more though because prisoners often have a TV, music player, and personal fan, sometimes two per cell. Each pod also has two 42” TVs mounted to the walls, and an array of security cameras as well.
According to my estimate, the total comes to 1,472 kilowatts an hour per day for basic light.
This is only four of five buildings. I have not included the scores of fluorescent fixtures, computers, medical and dental equipment, solitary cells, master control, kitchen, three dining halls, etc. We also have a pickup truck that drives in a circle 24 hours a day. I note this is a low-to-medium security camp, I also did not account for educational and vocational training areas.
Beyond the human cost of prisons, it’s clear there is an environmental one as well. That environmental impact goes far behind the power consumption. Garbage, food, and other impacts add up quickly. Every prison shut down is a grove of trees ready to be planted in its place.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.