The Virginia Department of Corrections announced in December completion of the construction of the Green Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) Vocational Program at Indian Creek Correctional Center in Chesapeake, Va., setting the stage for the curriculum to begin in 2012.

The learning lab there will train inmates on green jobs skills so they re-enter society as productive members of the work force with marketable skills. “Green” HVAC technology aims to reduce the emissions of synthetic materials that are commonly used as refrigerants, solvents and insulating foams that harm the ozone layer.

According to Kimberley Lipp, the department’s chief of architectural and emergency services, the program should have long-term benefits for Virginia. Johnson Controls helped the government develop the HVAC vocational program.

“We were thinking, how to do we tie an energy project to our primary mission of [inmate] re-entry?” Lipp said. “Brainstorming with Johnson Controls, this idea [emerged] of building something and then training inmates how to use it — and maybe how to get a related job.”

The program is part of Virginia’s prisoner re-entry initiative, which Gov. Bob McDonnell unveiled in 2010 to increase offenders’ chances of returning to society after release. It’s also part of the department’s broader efforts to bolster energy, water and operational efficiency. In 2005, the Department of Corrections awarded an $8.2 million contract to Johnson Controls that’s expected to reduce annual energy and operational expenditures by $733,707 a year over the next 15 years.

Johnson Controls said it’s working on energy efficiency at more than 20 of the department’s facilities. These efforts include lighting and technology upgrades, installing a new 300-panel thermal system, and installing new fixtures and electronic controls to decrease water use by more than 244 million gallons during the next 15 years.

In 2009, Johnson Controls and the Virginia government linked energy efficiency and prisoner re-entry goals. Virginia didn’t have enough money to address both needs easily, so officials came up with a creative funding strategy that taps savings generated by Virginia’s energy performance contracting with the company. Virginia is spending nearly $350,000 on the green learning program; the average length of stay for inmates is three years in Virginia. “The roughly $350,000 spent on the green learning lab would be offset in the first year if only five offenders, at $25,000 a year, with an average length of stay of three years, were successful re-entering,” Lipp said.

“This program will pay back in annual cost of incarceration avoided,” she said. “For every offender who successfully re-enters society and does not recidivate, the commonwealth of Virginia would avoid the annual incarceration cost of about $25,000 for every one of those offenders.”

Virginia unveiled the lab’s completion — the classroom, equipment and space — earlier this month during a media event. The Virginia Department of Correctional Education is developing the coursework.

“We’re still finalizing the curriculum with Johnson Controls, and the big thing we’re working on is covering as much material as we can but not letting the course get so long that offenders don’t have sufficient time to complete it,” said Wayne Bennett, deputy superintendent for career and technical education.

Green HVAC lessons will begin at the Indian Creek Correctional Center — an all-male facility. To qualify, students must have at least 10th-grade math and reading levels. The Virginia Department of Corrections is working out the specifics, but officials are shooting for a 12-month duration for coursework so that most students can finish before they’re re-released into society.

“Once we finalize the curriculum and we have benchmarks for different phases of the curriculum, we can make a better decision in terms of length of time,” Bennett added. “People with the shortest sentences will have the higher priority to enroll.”

There will be a morning class and an afternoon class. There won’t be semesters or periods, so new students will enroll as soon as other students are finished.

Virginia and Johnson Controls plan to give students the skills they need to join the green workforce.

“The opportunity for green jobs for meaningful employment is quite significant now. We’ve been talking about green opportunities, green buildings, green cars, green everything,” said Richard Barrett, account executive for Johnson Controls. “It’s emerging as quite the unique industry that really needs people who are prepared to be trained and provide services in those areas.

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  |  GT Staff Writer

By day, Hilton Collins is a staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines who covers sustainability, cybersecurity and disaster management issues. By night, he’s a sci-fi/fantasy fanatic, and if he had to choose between comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm. He can be reached at hcollins@govtech.com and on @hiltoncollins on Twitter.