Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Both prisoners and surrounding communities are affected by this under-studied issue.
The battle against overcrowding in prisons is as much a fight for basic human rights as it is a fight for the environment.
Increasingly, advocates against mass incarceration are working with allies from the environmental movement to make a combined case for prison reforms. Most advocacy work, petitions, and legal complaints against jails and prisons happen at the local level, but one organization is trying to make the conversation a national one.
Earlier this year, the Prison Ecology Project, an arm of the Human Rights Defense Center, teamed up with 93 environmental and social justice organizations to push the Environmental Protection Agency to include inmates in their Environmental Justice 2020 agenda. That’s the road map that will guide federal policies and programs to prevent environmental pollution from disproportionately affecting communities of color and the poor.
“If a factory pollutes the surrounding communities and we realize that’s an injustice, then what does that say when your factory is full of people who can’t leave?,” says Panagioti Tsolkas, who heads the project. “That’s a lot of what prisons are: industrial warehouses that operate factories directly on the property, [including] sewage management and power plants.”
The EPA declined an interview, saying only that the agency is carefully reviewing all public comments submitted in regards to the EJ 2020 framework.
The U.S. prison population has grown dramatically over the past four decades, from 200,000 adults in 1973 to 1.5 million by 2009 (plus an additional 700,000 adults in local jails). And with those numbers grew the number of jails, detention centers, and state and federal prisons. Today, the nation has more than 5,000 such facilities in both cities and rural areas. Many are overcrowded, presenting serious health concerns for the inmates, officers, and nearby communities. Many also produce waste and pollution far beyond local and federal standards, says Tsolkas.
The Prison Ecology Project is currently raising $15,000 to put together a database of the environmental impact of all U.S. correctional facilities.
Take the facilities at Rikers Island in New York, for example. In an interview with New York Magazine, a corrections officer remarked that, “Jail has a smell.” He continued: “I can’t even describe it to you. Worse than a sewer.” Part of the problem is that those facilities were built on top of landfills.
In the past, the island also housed pigs for slaughter as well as copious numbers of rodents, which were killed via poison gas, according to New York Magazine. In 2011, four officers on the island claimed that the toxic chemicals buried beneath the complex, along with thick “mysterious smoke plumes,” gave them cancer, though the city’s lawyer said there was no support for the allegations.
Then there’s the Kern Valley State Prison in California, where for years, 4,800 inmates drank water tainted with arsenic, a chemical scientists have linked to cancer. In Alabama, the rivers bear the brunt of prison overcrowding and inadequate sewage treatment facilities. The AP reported in 2006 that facilities in Alabama were dumping nearly twice the amount of allowable raw sewage—including human waste and toxic chemicals—into the state’s waterways, endangering both human and aquatic life.
The Prison Ecology Project’s first endeavor is to block a maximum-security federal prison from being built on a former coal mine in a rural Kentucky town. Not only would the construction create waste and health hazards, activists argue, it would also demolish 700 acres of endangered-species habitats in Appalachia.
In particular, the construction could further wipe out Indiana and gray bats, which are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. “They’re on a precipitous path toward extinction and given the highest protection available for a species,” says Lori Ann Burd at the Center of Biological Diversity.
For its part, the Federal Bureau of Prisons did acknowledge the potential consequences that building the facility might have on the two species in its Draft Environmental Impact Statement, but Burd says they failed to disclose the full spectrum of the impact. Tsolkas at the Humans Rights Defense Center says that group has submitted comments and is awaiting BOP’s final impact statement. (The BOP could not be reached in time for publication.)
Such prison builds often come with promises of economic prosperity for rural towns, mainly in the form of jobs, increased spending at local shops, and better tax revenue. But when researcher Ruth Wilson Gilmore studied California’s prison boom for her 2007 book Golden Gulag, she found that most of those benefits never materialized. At least in rural Californian towns, she found, less than a fifth of prison jobs on average actually go to current residents.
The proposed prison in Kentucky, for example, is expected to employ about 300 people full time, but neither Burd nor Tsolkas is convinced. “Kentucky has not developed its tourist industry,” Burd says. “And there’s no question that these communities need the economic development, but this is just not the right way to go.”
”We’ve just begun scratching the surface of the issue, and we’re learning that it has not been talked about, that it’s been swept under the rug,” says Tsolkas. Mass incarceration has layers of issues that need to be addressed, and the intersection between environment and human rights is just one of them.
After all, he adds, prisons “function like a small city packed into one building.”