This month's cover story is on what goes in and comes out of prisons in the way of water and sewage. While a lot of attention is paid to the more dramatic effects of prison overcrowding, such as violence, inadequate medical care, prisoners sleeping in gyms and store rooms, etc.; water and sewage are both elementary and basic yet all too often ignored. More importantly for organizers, unlike inadequate mental health care or prisoner on prisoner violence, this is an issue which affects the overwhelmingly poor, rural communities where most prisons are located.
One of the environmental impacts of prisons is where they are located. To my knowledge, no one has systematically examined the impact of building prisons in pristine deserts in Arizona, the mountain highlands of California, etc. When water is scarce and prisons need water, where is it going to come from? All too often, waste water treatment for prisons is ignored and raw sewage is discharged into nearby water bodies. A by product of many prison industries is that they become sources of toxic waste being emitted into the surrounding area such as industrial solvents, fuel, heavy metals, dioxins and more. At least one commentator, Jonathan Simon, has referred to American prisons as "toxic waste prisons." As we see, that term also has a literal meaning. Over the years we have frequently reported on these issues in PLN but this is the first time anyone has reviewed just a few years of news coverage to see the national scope and depth of the issue.
As a strategy to close or stop prisons, targeting illegal sewage emissions from prison and prison drinking water via the Clean Water Act is one that has not been explored. Prisons need water as much as they need air. They also need to be able to safely discharge sewage. If they can't do one or the other: no prison.
The environmental movement is well situated to both litigate and advocate on water contamination issues but for the most part does not see a connection between criminal justice issues and the environment. Hopefully that will change.
Long time PLN readers will remember that in 2002 PLN filed suit challenging the Kansas Department of Corrections ban on gift subscriptions, refusal to deliver publications to prisoners in level 1 and refusal to provide due process notice to the publisher when publications are censored. After being dismissed, winning in the 10th circuit and a two day bench trial in Wichita, Kansas in February, PLN finally prevailed and judge Monti Belot found the challenged censorship policies void and ruled in PLN's favor.
By now PLN readers should have received our annual fundraiser notice. I hope those who can afford to make a donation to our matching grant fundraiser do so. We won the lawsuit against the Kansas DOC after five years of long, bitterly contested litigation. We did so overcoming huge procedural hurdles: the challenged policy had been upheld by a unanimous Kansas supreme court a few years ago and another federal judge had upheld the ban on publications for level 1 prisoners. Our lawyers, Bruce Plenk and Max Kautsch, did a fantastic job representing us on a contingency/pro bono basis for over five years. Over the course of the litigation we were subjected to frivolous discovery requests which consumed lots of valuable PLN staff time. For the trial, Don Miniken and I had to fly to Kansas for five days in the middle of February for a two day bench trial. These are all expenses (plane tickets, hotel, meals, etc.) PLN had to pay out of pocket and of course while we're in a court room in Kansas our regular PLN work is not getting done. The defendants got qualified immunity so they don't have to pay PLN damages and while our attorneys will receive their well deserved and long delayed fees, PLN gets no compensation; not for losing half our Kansas DOC subscribers while the case was pending, not for the book sales we lost and not for our expenses in attending the trial (and all things being equal, walking to the courthouse in 10 degree weather with the wind whipping in from the prairie should be worth more than say a jaunt in the summer).
During the trial it was noted that Kansas has around 262 daily and weekly newspapers. Not a single one was in that courtroom to defend their right to reach Kansas prisoners nor the right of prisoners to receive their publications. Over the course of five years of litigation the corporate media was conspicuous by their absence. The only people in that courtroom were PLN and the Kansas DOC. And the state of Kansas has more resources than we do as evidenced by the fact the DOC secretary, assistant secretary, head of security and one of their top wardens attended the whole thing. But this is nothing new. Consistently around the country, PLN is THE ONLY publisher that stands up for the rights of prisoners to receive reading materials and the rights of publishers to send them. It consumes a lot of PLN staff time and even in cases like this where we ultimately win, it frequently means it has cost PLN a lot of staff time and out of pocket expenses, which are not compensated, to do so.
Your donations above and beyond the cost of your subscription is what enables us to do the censorship litigation, the advocacy and everything else we do above and beyond publishing the magazine each month. If you believe in free speech and a free, independent press, I hope you are willing to financially support it.
The advocacy is also important since it is about changing attitudes and ultimately policy about mass imprisonment. In August Brandon Eng, a PLN work study intern, and I manned a PLN table at the Hempfest in Seattle.
PLN has always supported and worked for sentencing reform and drug decriminalization. We shared a booth with our long time friends and allies at the November Coalition to raise awareness about the reality of prison and jail conditions faced by all prisoners, including those victims of the war on drugs (AKA the war on poor drug users). We distributed over 100 free copies of PLN, mostly to friends and family members of prisoners and former prisoners, talked to a lot of people about prison issues, distributed about two dozen books and had a chance to meet and talk with many of the nation's top drug policy experts and decriminalization advocates. Much of the event was oriented towards consumption rather than politics and I was sadly reminded of how far we, as a prisoner rights movement, have to go.
While walking by the main stage one speaker (who I have been unable to identify as he was not on the scheduled speaker list) said marijuana users don't belong in prison. He went on to say that prison was for sub humans, for animals, for rapists and murderers and that people in prison belonged there (presumably not those imprisoned for marijuana offenses).
That really got my attention because historically when people are
referred to as sub human, genocide and extermination camps have been the next and final stop. Even more stunning was that this went unchallenged by a crowd of several thousand people. As a former prisoner I had to say I didn't feel especially sub human or animalistic. Nor did any of the other former prisoners I saw that day nor my friends who are still in prison.
I was very disappointed that a speaker at an event like Hempfest would equate prisoners with being subhuman and even more chagrined that the only people in the crowd who had a problem with it were myself and another former prisoner. When I mentioned this to a friend she said that this illustrates both the need and importance of PLN having a presence at events like this, that we need to reach out to new people and not just preach to the converted and sing to the choir. All the people who came to the PLN booth though were both receptive and generally supportive of prisoner rights and sentencing reform. That's just one event though and we do a lot more. It means reaching people and places where our message is needed.
With the holidays rapidly approaching please consider giving gift subscriptions of PLN as well as book gifts and PLN has some great cards and hemp totebags with the PLN logo on it available on our website at www.prisonlegalnews.org.
Lastly, PLN operates a free list serv where those with e mail access can receive free daily news bulletins about prison and jail news and court rulings every day. Just go to PLN's website and sign up for it.
Prisoners, encourage your friends and family members who are interested in these issues to sign up for it. Enjoy this issue of PLN and encourage others to subscribe.
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