Greening Justice

Are you passionate about criminal justice and environmental protection? Sure, but what does one have to do with the other? Actually plenty according to this new article on the interfaces of criminal, social and ecological justice.

‘Greening justice’ isn’t about accountability for environmental harm or ecocide as a crime. Instead it encompasses a variety of initiatives and actions within the criminal justice system that are able to advance criminal, social and ecological justice – all at once. While the most sustainable prison is the one that is never built there are opportunities for greening justice initiatives within our current criminal justice system. These could be applied at every stage of the justice system, from crime prevention to incarceration and post-release rehabilitation. I will summarise a few of the examples discussed in the above article.

Greening the police

The Hong Kong ‘Green Police’ initiative promotes environmental awareness among staff and aims to minimise waste, fuel and energy. It is thought that by shifting to low emitting modes of transport such as segways, hybrids, bicycles and foot patrols, the police force not only saves money, reduces emissions and improves the physical health of officers but the quantity and quality of police-citizen interactions also benefits. The less time police spend in their cars, the more time they are visible in the community. This promotes positive relationships between the police and the community.

Greening courts

We can green any building, including courts, by minimising energy use and waste and by adopting sustainable design practices when building from scratch or when renovating. Green courts have therapeutic and aesthetic benefits.
There is the capacity to change what the authors aptly terms the “emotional geography” of a space. The greenery in and around courts could be maintained by people within the criminal justice system. For example, plants may be grown in prisons; gardens and courtyards could be maintained by people serving a community work sentence; and symbolic art forms created by victims or offenders could adorn the public foyer. These additions may help to enhance the perception of courts as public spaces.

Greening prisons


Bastoy Prison is an island off the coast of Oslo where some of Noway’s longest serving prisoners live in communal houses and work largely unsupervised during the day in preparation for the end of their sentences.

Green prisons are designed to maximise human and ecological wellbeing. The world’s first ‘eco-prison’ in Norway, Bastøy prison, is guided by “human-ecological” principles and the notion of ‘normalisation’. Prisoners lead productive lives and are engaged in farming, food production and facilities to promote their physical and mental health. As of 2013, Bastøy prison had a remarkably low reoffending rate of just 16% – the New Zealand rate is 52% within 5 years of release.

The Cedar Creek Corrections Centre in Washington State features initiatives implemented by the Sustainability in Prisons Project, such as:

  • A greenhouse and garden saving thousands of dollars a year in food costs;
  • Food composting to support on-site gardening;
  • A recycling scheme;
  • Beekeeping that produces honey and beeswax; and
  • A scheme where the prison nurtures endangered species.

There is a caveat to the application of environmentally friendly initiatives in prisons. For example, the greater use of video visits and electronic lawyer-client conferences reduces transport costs, emissions and human resources. These are great outcomes from an environmental perspective. However, they may not further justice or rehabilitation in the way that face to face interactions might. It is important not to lose sight of justice and to keep a holistic multi-faceted approach when implementing greening justice initiatives in prisons.In Australia, prison community gardens have helped participants to develop not only work ethic but also “nature ethic”. The latter refers to an appreciation for conservation and general ecological, nutritional and agricultural principles. These in-prison initiatives have led prisoners to pursue educational goals after their release. When offenders are being referred to as a “gardener”, or “horticulture student”, this fosters their eventual integration into society. In the short term, gardening has physical and mental health benefits and gives prisoners a sense of hope.

Greening community reintegration

Community-based sentences or post-release conditions that incorporate environmental activities in the community have worked well. For example, the Skill Mill social enterprise in Newcastle, England provides employment and training for young people with a history of offending aged 16 to 18. Participants are involved in, among other things, constructing walkways, digging channels, clearing plant litter and flood defence work. Participants in the programme appear to do better than the national average in terms of re-offending rates and the vast majority enjoy the work.
The Offenders and Nature schemes in the UK brings together adult prisoners and those on probation with Forestry Commission staff. Together, they work on woodland sites, carrying out beautification projects such as tree planting and maintaining footpaths.
These initiatives are important because the criminal justice system should not simply incarcerate people without thought as to their eventual release. The system should strive to up-skill and educate people to ease their integration back into society as participants in their communities. There is scope for environmental projects to play a larger role in rehabilitation.

Concluding thoughts

In a society where penal populism is on the rise, the authors stress that ‘green’ does not necessarily equate to ‘good’. For example, Guantánamo Bay features state of the art green technologies, including four large wind turbines and bicycle-riding police. Greening justice must not become a feel good gloss over a regressive penal culture. Greening justice does not exist as a cost-effective way to incarcerate more people. In fact, the most sustainable building is one that is never built.
‘Greening justice’ is still a relatively new term. More research and thought needs to go into the parameters of the concept and its goals. However, it is clear that there is substantial benefit in adopting more ethical and sustainable practices in the criminal justice system. After all the pursuit of criminal, social and ecological justice is not mutually exclusive. Sustainability as a concept embraces both the natural and built environments. I look forward to a proliferation of practices within criminal justice institutions that can achieve win-win outcomes for humans and nature.