Yesterday, Stephanie Rogers penned an eye-opening article on North Carolina’s Butner Federal Prison. This LEED-certified medium-security prison with low-water landscaping and bicycle parking is where villainous Wall Street swindler Bernie Madoff will call home until the end of his life. Think LEED is exclusively reserved for luxury homes and architecturally dazzling commercial spaces? Think again.

This news come just a couple weeks after biz blogger Melissa Hincha-Ownby wrote about the Washington Department of Corrections’ impressive commitment to the environment, including LEED-certified DOC buildings, green job training for inmates and other initiatives. According to The New York Times, green correctional facilities in other states are sprouting up or are in the works.

Color me surprised. This gentler, greener vision of the American prison system is one that strikes me as near bucolic … not gritty, run-down, and, well, prison-y. It’s not to say that Madoff (god forbid) is living in the lap of luxury behind bars at Butner, but I’m rather taken aback by the concept of sustainable slammers. Not a bad thing — particularly the green job training — but still not what I expected.

I sensed something distinctly European about this whole greening-of-prisons business and I was right. It looks like we can thank Scandinavia (naturally) for getting the ball rolling with eco-friendly houses of detention.

Norway’s Bastøy Prison, the world’s first “ecological” prison, has been getting a steady amount of press since it went green in 2007 up until today from both news outlets like MSNBC and green living websites like Chelsea Green. Bastøy, a “pleasant” minimum-security facility on an island 1.5 miles off of Norway’s mainland, is an agrarian utopia with an organic farm, nature preserves, solar-powered living units, wood-fired boilers and strict recycling. There are no guards (well, there are but security is decidedly lax) to watch over the 115 inmates, just 200 chickens, 40 sheep, 20 cows and eight horses.

To be incarcerated on this pristine penal paradise, prisoners must apply. If selected, they can serve their sentences — it's a maximum of 21 years in Norway but most inmates only spend a couple months or years at Bastøy — swimming, fishing, harvesting organic produce, playing tennis, studying livestock husbandry or woodland management, cultivating flowers in a greenhouse, or manning a delightful-looking shop. There are also more typical prison jobs (although farming is the largest) like janitorial work. It's all a far cry from license plate-making, that's for sure.

The prison's website reads:

Bastøy Prison seeks to instil in its inmates values and attitudes grounded in ecology and humanism. It does so by actively teaching them to take responsibility for their actions through focused programmes reflecting core institutional values.
The prison regime is designed to give the individual greater self-respect and a better understanding of values that promote law-abiding and useful members of the community.
Interesting stuff, although I don't think we can expect to find Bernie Madoff tending to a flock of sheep or picking organic heirloom tomatoes any time soon during his 150-year sentence. What are your thoughts on extending the trappings of green civilian homes — renewable energy, low-water landscaping, recycling, composting, etc. — to green criminal homes? Is Norway on to something big here? Or should states focus on affordable, innovative green housing for folks not behind bars?

Via [Chelsea Green] and [MSNBC]

Photos: Bastøy Prison

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Life inside the big green house
Think Bernie Madoff is getting off easy in a LEED-certified prison? Check out Norway's eco-lockup, Bastøy Prison.