Among the new innovations at the Shelby County Correctional Center are two food waste dehydrators that can transform  garbage en route to a landfill into a rich, brown powdery substance used to feed animals and nourish the soil.

The food waste dehydrator is just one component of the correctional center’s many green initiatives in recycling and energy conservation. It’s a process that began in 2014 and has gained the facility recognition from the American Correctional Association, an industry accreditation agency.

Next year, the bar set by the correctional center, along with state prison systems in Indiana and Ohio, will become the minimum standard for ACA-accredited institutions.

“We are not an ACA-accredited facility. We are striving to get there. But we have achieved their standard and we’re setting the guidelines for what follows going forward when it comes to green prison initiatives,” said Anthony Alexander, director of the county’s corrections division.

The ACA has “tagged us” as a forerunner in sustainability, said Bailey Waits, facilities manager.

“Since we’re a single entity – those are both the whole state – they said they would take what we’re doing as the base line for general practices as far as ACA standards that will go into effect … in January,” Waits said, referring to the designations in Indiana and Ohio.

Tommy Norris, founder of, sits on the ACA’s sustainability committee with Waits.



“Shelby County is one of the leaders, particularly in jails, one of the leaders in the nation of these kind of efforts, and it’s in large part due to Bailey’s efforts and the admin there. They’ve been very open to new ideas and new practices,” Norris said. “They’re the kind of place that, when I’m working with other agencies, I hold them up as an example and would encourage other agencies to visit them and see what they’re doing first- hand.”

Similar efforts to go green are underway at prisons across the state, including the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Henning, where energy-saving and recycling programs have been in place for several years.

“We do compost and we also recycle the cardboard and plastic and cans,” Cpl.David Shelton said. “We use the compost on our garden.”

The garden feeds prisoners there and at other facilities, Shelton said.

In addition, the prison has installed energy-efficient LED lighting, controls water usage with timed showers and updated pumps for the wastewater treatment system and boiler, Warden Jonathan Lebo said.

“This was initiated several years ago for the Department of Corrections to save energy,” Lebo said. “TDOC (Tennessee Department of Correction) has really done well with our energy usage. And it has just been an ongoing thing. At places this big, it’s an ongoing project to get to this point.”



Lebo said the prison hasn’t crunched the numbers to get a dollar amount on how much money has been saved.

But they have at the correctional center.

Because of other changes at the correctional center, it’s hard to make dollar-to-dollar comparisons when calculating the savings to the county from going green, said Johnathan Russell, administrator of finance.

For example, in 2014, before the facility went to energy-efficient LED lighting and installed a rooftop solar water heating system, the utility bill was $2.1 million for the year. And for years, a “$2 million utility bill was par for the course,” Russell said.

However, around that same time, the center closed a building and the population began to decrease – two actions that also contributed to the lower bill, he said.

But by fiscal year 2018, the utility bill was $1.6 million. For fiscal 2019, it was $1.49 million. Those figures were without any mitigating factors, Russell said.

“All factors together, from our baseline of 2014, we’ve saved $2 million. Some goes with the building closure. I’d be shocked if at least half of that wasn’t just because of energy efficiency,” Russell said.

Savings also will be attached to the new food waste dehydrators, which take 516 pounds of food waste and reduce it to 127 pounds of  “useable product,” Waits said.

The two dehydrators cost $153,000, paid for with $73,300 in grant money from the Tennessee Department of Energy and Conservation and $79,300 from the corrections division’s budget.

Before, the county paid $250 a month, or $3,000 a year, to rent a trash compactor. And it spent about $15,000 a year to have the food waste hauled away, Russell said.

That’s money that won’t be shelled out in the future, he said.

There are no rodents now, Waits said, and no odor.



The dehydrators handle anything that’s biodegradable, including chicken bones, meat, fruit, vegetables or the waste paper from salt and pepper packets.

“Anything that comes off the tray that is not consumed,” Alexander said.

The substance that’s left resembles cocoa.

“It runs seven days a week, basically 24 hours a day. Depending on what we fed last night, it either smells like homemade bread or coffee,” Waits said.

It’s simple to use, he added. Load the waste, close the door and hit the start button.

When it stops, it’s finished.

The division is still testing the nitrogen levels in the dehydrated food waste to figure out the proportions that will allow it to be mixed safely with soil that can be used to amend the soil on the property.

“Right now, in Virginia we know they’re using it for livestock feed and fertilizing the crop land,” Waits said.

The division has also contacted Agricenter International and the county’s Orgill Park Golf Course about using it there.

“The biggest impact, though, is we’re reducing the amount of waste that goes into the area landfills. And we’re able to recycle those products,” Alexander said of the dehydrated waste.

Waits has overseen all the division’s green projects, but it’s the recycling program that he calls “his baby.”

Paper is collected from the recycling bins at every office in Shelby County and hauled to the correctional center, where it is sorted, shredded and bailed for shipment to a recycler.

“It loses a lot of luster now because of what we’re doing in other areas,” Waits said of the recycling. “But I still think that’s probably one of the most viable bills that we’ve done. It’s not going in a landfill. Other departments are not paying to shred. It’s a savings two or three deep.”