When journalist Raven Rakia embarked on an investigation of “the Superfund State” of New Jersey, she found another layer to the environmental justice disaster that sits just south of New York City. While New Jersey leads the nation in federally-designated Superfund sites, with 113 listed for pending clean-up, there are an additional 14,000 contaminated sites in the state.
According to data collected by WNYC (New York Public Radio), 89 percent of New Jersey residents live within a mile of such sites. Specifically, 74 percent of state residents with incomes below the poverty line reside within a mile of a contaminated site with no plan in place to clean up the contamination, compared to half of residents who are not below the poverty line. In addition, 79 percent of New Jersey’s Hispanic population and 75 percent of its black population live within a mile of a toxic site with no clean-up plan, compared to 42 percent of white residents.
But that says nothing about the state’s prison population, which generally flies under the radar of most demographic data. So Rakia overlaid the WNYC’s contaminated site map with the state’s prison locations.
“I expected to find at least a couple prisons within a mile of a toxic site.... What I didn’t expect is that over half of New Jersey’s state prisons would be toxic sites. The WNYC map, using information from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) website, identifies seven out of the 13 New Jersey state prisons as toxic sites,” Rakia observed. “Plus, these toxic prison sites are often surrounded by more contaminated sites.”
Rakia’s report, published in December 2015 in Grist, an online environmental news outlet, indicated that the following prisons are located on or near known toxic sites:
- New Jersey State Prison: It’s the oldest prison in the state – and the one surrounded by the most toxic sites. Along with being a contaminated site itself, the facility has six other sites located within a half-mile – and even more within one mile. The state prison, which opened in 1836, houses over 1,600 prisoners.
- Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility: Located in Hunterdon County, this facility incarcerates around 800 youthful offenders and was built in 1929.
- Garden State Youth Correctional Facility: Another youth prison, opened in 1968. Garden State currently holds about 1,500 prisoners; in addition to being a contaminated site itself, it is within a half-mile of another contaminated site.
- Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women: This facility imprisons around 700 women and was constructed in 1913. Like Garden State, it is both a toxic site and within a half-mile of another contaminated site.
- Adult Diagnostic Treatment Center: The Treatment Center houses approximately 700 prisoners, mainly sex offenders, and was opened in 1976. It’s within a half-mile of four contaminated sites.
- Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility: Another prison for youthful offenders. Built in 1934, this facility has a population of about 660 and sits within a half-mile of a toxic site.
- Central Reception and Assignment Facility/Jones Farm Minimum Security Unit: This is a reception facility for male prisoners, while the Jones Farm is a satellite work camp. Located in Mercer County, the facility has a population of around 560.
Unfortunately, the DEP has only minimal information available about the details of the contaminated sites in and near these state prisons. With the exception of the Adult Diagnostic Treatment Center, private contractors called Licensed Site Remediation Professionals are now responsible for investigating toxic sites and determining how they are to be cleaned up.
After the DEP admitted it could not keep track of all the contaminated sites, the New Jersey legislature voted to outsource the work to private contractors as a way to address the problem more rapidly. That was in 2009. Local residents say privatizing clean-up efforts has left troubling gaps in the process that continue today.
One such resident, Ana Baptista, grew up next door to a steel drum factory in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, and is now an environmental policy professor at The New School in New York City.
“Years ago people were screaming at the state that there were these loopholes,” she said. “Instead of putting more funding and resources into the state to handle these cases and oversee them, they completely shifted it to a privatized system. Here we are years later, doesn’t seem much better, and it’s also left behind this issue of accountability.”
The DEP’s response was that they still address any immediate health risks that arise in the state. But room for skepticism remains, and it’s not just prisoners who are impacted by the toxic sites. As Rakia pointed out, “The DEP also said that most of the contaminated sites were abandoned – when, according to WNYC, they were home to schools, hospitals, and churches.”
As well as correctional facilities that house thousands of state prisoners.
Sources: www.grist.org, WNYC
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