Sustainable thinking is not a luxury for middle-class tree-huggers, it is an imperative for everyone on the planet in the next few decades. The alternative to ‘sustainability’ is massive loss of life and habitat across the globe – and, at worst, humanity’s own extinction. Sustainability needs to impact the thinking of every organisation, business and institution – including yours. I am currently studying part-time for an MSc in ‘Sustainable Development’ and have been thinking of some of the ways that sustainability is relevant to the justice and rehabilitation sector.
1: Unsustainable Revenge
We have been taught the mantra of ‘austerity’ but this particular sword tends to land heaviest on poor members of society, who are most dependent on public services, whilst the most affluent are protected from the bulk of its consequences.
The idea of ‘sustainability’ is potentially just as disciplinarian (in that as a country we need to get our average carbon footprint down from about 15 tonnes of C02 equivalent emissions per person per year to somewhere between 3 and 5 tonnes) but it penalises all unsustainable consumption and production rather than any particular publicly-funded service. The reductions are just as demanding as ‘austerity’ but a lot more egalitarian.
So if we have to collectively cut back on our carbon footprint how can the justice sector contribute?
For a start, we need to look at the carbon cost of the 85,679 people (over 95% men) we lock up in prison. If you look critically at the way this country runs its justice system you have to accept that a lot of punishment is driven psychologically by fear and the desire for collective revenge against ‘offenders’, and what they represent, rather than sensible thought about how to treat the causes of crime in the individual and society. So sustainability demands we focus all our attention on rehabilitation.
This is thankfully the way austerity is also pushing a Conservative government to think. But sustainability is a more effective defence against a punishment-only agenda. If we just rely on austerity, when the better economic times return (if they do) we will also get a fresh onslaught of Daily Mail headlines shouting for ‘unruly criminals to get their just deserts and a good short, sharp shock’ – regardless of the fact that many suffer from addiction and mental health issues created by the trauma of poverty, family and institutionalised violence, a failing care system, as well as educational, social and economic exclusion.
One of the big lessons I have learned on my MSc course is that alleviating poverty and creating sustainable economies and societies go hand in hand, whether that is here in the UK or overseas.
2: Restored Connections
One way of viewing criminality is that it is a disconnection between individuals and the communities and societies to which they belong. Conversely rehabilitation can be seen as a structured way of helping people with convictions reconnect with society. (Restorative justice also takes this reconnection and reconciliation approach.)
Sustainability is a brilliant way to think about re-connection. It takes seriously the need for individuals to take responsibility for their own actions – not just out of a sense of legalistic morality (which can sometimes be seen as skewed by people with convictions who see wealthy people getting away with the consequences of their greed) but as a matter of collective survival. It is a more community-centred approach to justice that everyone can buy into.
In rehabilitation, sustainability is potentially a powerful talking point and mental construct in the ‘classroom’ for service users but it is also very effective as a hands-on experience. Sustainability projects that get people with convictions to reconnect with the natural world – through for example horticulture in prison, community payback habitat conservation projects and learning about caring through giving prisoners the responsibility of looking after neglected dogs – seem to be highly effective. Adding a sustainability perspective would give these types of projects even more impetus and win much-needed community backing.
3: Practical Financial Savings
Finally we need to look at the practical costs of running prisons. These large institutions consume large amounts of energy for light and heat. There is no reason why they should not be subject to the same rigorous environmental impact assessments of any other large buildings and developments. This would have the effect of putting solar panels on many prison rooftops, reducing energy bills and improving our carbon footprint.
Scotland is in the vanguard of green energy. It currently generates around 40% of its energy from renewable sources. It is adopting this sustainable thinking to its prison estate.
Saughton Prison in Edinburgh has unveiled plans to install hundreds of solar panels on its roof in a bid to slash electricity bills over the next 25 years.
If proposals are given the green light, around 300 photovoltaic (PV) panels would be mounted on top of the prison’s games hall, generating huge savings and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 tonnes annually.
The solar energy plan comes after Perth and Kinross Council approved a scheme which will see panels installed at HMP Perth at a cost of just over £41,000.
Similar projects are being carried out at HMP Low Moss and the Polmont young offenders facility.
If you would like to engage with me on the subject of Sustainable Justice do get in touch.