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Incarceration, Justice and the Planet: How the Fight Against Toxic Prisons May Shape the Future of Environmentalism

Prisons inspire little in terms of natural wonder. It might be a weed rises through a crack and blooms for a moment. It might be a prisoner notices. But prisoners, one could assume, must have little concern for the flowers or for otherwise pressing environmental issues. With all the social quandaries present in their lives – walls of solitude, the loss of basic human rights – pollution, climate change and healthy ecosystems must seem so distantly important: an issue for the free. In actuality, prisoners are on the frontlines of the environmental movement, one which intersects with social justice.

Prisoner Jonathan Jones-Thomas found himself unexpectedly in the middle of a scandal exposing massive sewage spills into Washington State’s Skykomish River by the Monroe Correctional Complex. Prisoner Bryant Arroyo ended up rallying hundreds of prisoners to join environmental groups on the outside in fighting plans for a coal gasification plant next to where he was confined. Prisoner Robert Gamez chose to speak out in the midst of an unfolding environmental justice disaster in the Arizona desert, where military Superfund sites and proposed toxic copper mine waste injections ringed the solitary confinement cell he was forced to call home.

And they weren’t alone. When the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), an advocacy group led by former prisoners with 26 years under its belt, announced that it was starting a “prison ecology project,” letters began rolling in from incarcerated people around the country. These prisoners were witnessing the sort of conditions that many Americans who fall into the category of environmentalists don’t expect to hear about in their own backyard: factory labor far below minimum wage with no safety gear; black mold infestations, contaminated water, hazardous waste and sewage overflows; deadly risks of floods or extreme heat; and a whole host of illnesses related to living in overcrowded, toxic facilities.

Regulatory Black Holes

According to HRDC executive director Paul Wright, a former Washington State prisoner himself, many prisons actually do operate more like maquiladora sweatshops south of the U.S. border, where both labor standards and environmental regulations take a back seat to other interests. 

Wright is not a stranger to the border. Though he grew up in Lake Worth, Florida, his mother’s side of the family is from the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Wright was arrested at age 21 and served 17 years in prison, stemming from a gun fight that resulted in a murder charge while stationed in the Seattle area during a stint in the military. Prior to that he had spent summers visiting relatives in Mexico, and lived there for a period in his youth.

He is also quite familiar with prison factory conditions. As a prisoner, he co-founded Prison Legal News in 1990, and made what he calls “prison slave labor” one of its central themes – seeking to expose corporate contractors that take advantage of the nominal wages and blind eye to labor conditions. Wright still pays attention to injustice stemming from prison industries, but has also turned his eye to what he sees as another problematic, and underexplored, aspect of prisons.

“There are serious environmental impacts happening there, out of sight from the general public, similar to the case with sweatshops behind the border wall,” Wright says. In the case of prisons, operations occur literally behind tightly-closed and well-armored doors. “They’re like black holes of government regulation.”

But there are some key distinctions between prisons and sweatshops. Namely, in sweatshops the workers tend to go to some form of their own home at the end of the day. But prisons operate as full-time warehouses for people, often piled in by the thousands. That in itself, he says, has serious environmental implications.

The U.S. maintains a massive prison system – the world’s largest, in fact. The political value of tough-on-crime rhetoric and legislation that drove the U.S. prison population to beat out every other country on the planet was often central to political campaign platforms in the ‘80s and ‘90s. A bloated prison system became accepted as the norm, and on top of that, its growth was accompanied by an increasingly disproportionate representation of black, Latino and indigenous people, predominately from low-income communities. The most recent demographic statistics available show this to be the case not only on a national level, but in each and every state as well.

Today, the nation is four decades into the era of mass incarceration, where the prison population jumped 700 percent since the 1960s. Perhaps it’s high time we start asking: What are the environmental impacts of this racialized practice of justice that has been so extreme as to earn the moniker “The New Jim Crow”?

In Wright’s opinion, the answers could prove as critical to the future of the environmental movement as carbon emissions and rising sea levels.

The Planet vs. the Police State

The simplest starting point in understanding prison pollution comes, ironically, from an agency of the same government that oversees the largest population of U.S. prisoners. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), once upon a time, summed it up like this:

“[C]orrectional institutions have many environmental matters to consider in order to protect the health of the inmates, employees and the community where the prison is located. Some prisons resemble small towns or cities with their attendant industries, population and infrastructure. Supporting these populations, including their buildings and grounds, requires heating and cooling, wastewater treatment, hazardous waste and trash disposal, asbestos management, drinking water supply, pesticide use, vehicle maintenance and power production, to name a few potential environmental hazards. And the inmate training programs offered at most institutions also have their own unique environmental challenges ... the US Environmental Protection Agency has been inspecting correctional facilities to see how they are faring. From the inspections, it is clear many prisons have room for improvement.”

This statement originated from the webpage of EPA’s Region III office, which covers the Mid-Atlantic states. It was part of what the Region’s staff had dubbed their “Prison Initiative,” where a series of inspections sparked by citizen complaints led to a host of violations in most every prison they visited between 1999 and 2003. Region III continued to report violations via their Prison Initiative ranging from air and water pollution to hazardous waste management and toxic spill control problems.

After the first batch of EPA enforcement actions against prisons in the Mid-Atlantic, the lead inspector for the initiative, Garth Conner, issued a bleak report published in May 2003 in the National Environmental Enforcement Journal, noting that EPA staff had “completed six multi-media inspections at different kinds of prisons and ... found widespread non-compliance at all of them.”

In an attempt to explain the phenomenon, Conner concluded, “[Prisons] are isolated from mainstream culture. Prison staff members are not often in attendance at environmental conferences or workshops intended for the regulated community.”

He was clearly on to something. The prison population was growing in leaps and bounds – a new prison was built at an average rate of one every two weeks in the ‘90s, almost entirely in rural communities. As of 2002, there were already more prisoners in this country than farmers. Today, about 716 of every 100,000 Americans are in prison, whereas prisoners in nations across the world average 155 per 100,000 people – that’s not to mention more than seven million on some form of correctional supervision such as parole, probation or house arrest at any given time.

The prison industry seemed like an unstoppable machine in those years, plowing forward at a breakneck pace to the world’s largest prison population. Then, in came the EPA Region III exposing a serious vulnerability in the prison system: it was a chronic polluter, violating public safety laws at near every turn. But other EPA Regions didn’t follow the lead on this disturbingly successful endeavor. On the contrary, the EPA seems to be erasing evidence of the initiative altogether.

Shortly after Wright’s organization began probing into the matter of how the EPA was inspecting prisons – or failing to – the clear and commonsense summary quoted above disappeared from the agency’s website, along with the laundry list spanning 10 years of prisons being fined for their environmental violations.

EPA staff alleged that this was part of a pre-existing plan to update their website, and HRDC’s Prison Ecology Project (PEP) has not yet located evidence to disprove that. If it’s indeed the truth, then the Project was born none too soon, as it is now the only remaining online source acknowledging the existence of Region III’s short-lived Prison Initiative.

Prison Pollution and its Discontents

By mid-March 2015, the PEP would enter the fray in a more formal capacity, by taking the lead in coordinating a joint comment on the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for a new federal prison with national and regional heavy-hitters such as the Center for Biological Diversity and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, as well as a dozen other groups.

The EIS laid out plans for a new maximum-security facility in Letcher County, nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. The proposal would simultaneously impact the habitat of over 50 threatened and endangered species and place prisoners on top of a former mountaintop removal coal mining site ringed by sludge pond and processing operations, as well as oil and gas extraction, that have taken a well-documented heavy toll on human health in the area.

By July 2015, lines were further drawn as the PEP built momentum with 93 organizations joining its crusade of pushing the EPA’s “Environmental Justice 2020 Plan” (EJ 2020) to examine the unique and troubling experiences faced by prisoner populations nationwide.

Some deeper digging shows that it wasn’t just HRDC and the EPA that had been paying attention to environmental implications of mass incarceration. A plethora of examples have been surfacing under various state agencies as well as other non-governmental organizations, but the findings rarely surfaced outside local media sources, often in remote rural places. The PEP set out to change that, and by the fall of 2015 it had established an extensive portfolio of media coverage on Letcher County and the EJ 2020 plan.

Wright believes that a movement is growing. Though prisoners’ rights are his forte, he says it’s not just prisoners who should be worried about these environmental issues. “Whether they care about prison conditions or not, most Americans can agree that they don’t want prisoners’ feces in their drinking water,” he noted.

Again, he has first-hand familiarity with the prison system’s legacy of tainted water. While at Washington’s McNeil Island (prior to the facility being converted to a civil commitment center for sex offenders), he recalls, “I’d go to brush my teeth and the water coming out of the faucet was brown. I didn’t really think of this as a criminal justice issue; this is really an environmental issue.”

In a scene reminiscent of the classic novel Papillon, Wright went on to smuggle a sample of water out from the facility to have it tested for contaminants. While he was not able to prove foul play at the time, and his complaints to the state’s Department of Ecology failed to provoke an immediate response, he was later vindicated when the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) was found to be lying about its water quality reports.

From 1999 to 2002, twenty of 36 water pollution reports were falsified by the DOC in an attempt to cover up excess fecal coliform bacteria levels contained in the 350,000 gallons of wastewater discharged daily by the McNeil Island prison into the Puget Sound.

The experience would later prompt Wright’s publication, Prison Legal News (known to prisoners across the country as simply PLN), to conduct a nationwide report of prison-related water pollution. In 2007, the magazine published findings from 17 states indicating dozens of prisons had issues related to sewage and sanitation problems.

Just last year, a public records request by PLN resulted in the disclosure of new documents in Washington State. This was the source for the story of prisoner Jonathan Jones-Thomas, who worked on the sewage system at the Monroe Correctional Complex and sought to expose the problems of the facility’s failing waste water system.

Despite years of documented sewage spills into the adjacent Skykomish River which runs into the Puget Sound, Jones-Thomas says his attempts to blow the whistle on this public health hazard landed him in “the hole.” While in solitary confinement, the sewage spills continued at an accelerated pace, with no one on hand to address the problems of an outdated and overburdened sewage lagoon known as the Honor Farm site. In the past eight years, the facility has already spilled nearly half-a-million gallons in violation of state laws, with no penalties assessed against the DOC.

But the worst may be yet to come. The entire dike holding the sewage lagoon is failing. According to a 2012 report from a Department of Ecology inspector, this “could potentially release millions of gallons of untreated wastewater” into the river and surrounding wetlands.

Jones-Thomas was released in 2014 and went on to find employment as a wastewater management professional. He was back in prison again last year, but not as a prisoner. This time he was teaching a class to prisoners about employment opportunities in the field.

Despite his experiences and observations at Monroe being exposed by reports in the Seattle Weekly and other local media outlets, the environmental problems at the facility continue without end in sight.

Jailhouse Environmentalism

The existence of “jailhouse lawyers” is something of mythology for those outside of prison. But for people on the inside, this role is a very real and often revered position. The skills and track record of jailhouse lawyering are in many ways akin to the traditional of environmentalist “paper-wrenching” (a term derived from the slang word for eco-sabotage, monkeywrenching).

Both the jailhouse lawyer and the grassroots environmental paperwrencher have demonstrated an ability to use the system’s bureaucracy to challenge seemingly impermeable industries and institutions. And both could be characterized by the extreme power imbalance between pro se litigants and the full force of government agencies coupled with corporate interests.

But in the case of the jailhouse lawyer, the cards are often stacked to heights unimaginable for most free-world activists, where the wrong moves could mean an indefinite period of time in solitary confinement or years added to a sentence.

Despite this, prisoners representing themselves in legal battles with the prison administration over their basic rights have a long and impressive history of winning bread-and-butter victories, or in some cases triggering sweeping policy changes.

In one of the most striking examples, prisoners, their family members and a handful of advocates and activists on the outside were able to drastically shift the exorbitant cost of prison phone calls sparked by citizen petitions to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). After a dozen years of battles in courtrooms and thousands of letters generated, primarily by Wright’s organization and publication, the FCC announced in November 2015 that they would be drastically reducing the telecom industry’s ability to profiteer so relentlessly off captive customers.

A prominent prisoner-reporter, Mumia Abu Jamal, captured much of the experience for prisoner rights advocates behind bars in his book, Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the U.S.A. – a collection of essays and interviews on the topic released in 2009. In 2013, Abu Jamal reported a story it seems could spark a sequel to the book. It was the story of a Pennsylvania prisoner named Bryant Arroyo in an article titled “Jailhouse Environmentalist.” He explained how Arroyo used his skills and connections as a jailhouse lawyer to help sink a coal industry debacle of building a toxic plant immediately adjacent to State Correctional Institution (SCI) Mahanoy. The following is an excerpt from “Jailhouse Environmentalist”:

“I’d wager few of us have ever heard of a ‘jailhouse environmentalist.’ Truth is I didn’t think such a thing existed. Well, it’s real; and his name is Bryant Arroyo, a bilingual Puerto Rican who has spent a third of his life in prison, at SCI-Mahanoy in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Arroyo didn’t plan on such an endeavor, as he is, already, a jailhouse lawyer. But, like much in life, it was forced on him.

“In 1998 former PA Governor Tom Ridge invited an area businessman to join him on a trek to South Africa. He, John W. Rich, Jr., was a power plant operator and a major landowner in the Mahanoy Susquehanna County area; a distressed, impoverished region where coal mines have closed down decades ago. Rich met and made deals with the South African SASOL Industry, and before long, he announced plans for a major coal to liquid gas project, literally right next door to the state prison in Mahanoy.

“By every measure, this was a done deal, for Rich, his family and colleagues contributed to federal, state and local politicians (who supported his plan without dissent), and he was even bi-partisan in this effort, gaining the praise and support of Democratic Governor Ed Rendell.

“State permits were issued for the $800 million plant, and state subsidies cut the costs by hundreds of millions of bucks. But, Arroyo, a curious and inquisitive man, having read about the proposed plant in local papers, felt uneasy. ‘What if this isn’t safe?’ he wondered.

“He visited the prison library, asked for the environmental impact statement (a study required by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), read it – read it again – and determined he would do everything in his power to stop it.

“But what could one man – a prisoner at that – do? He talked to everybody he could, gangbangers, guards – everybody. Under prison rules, petitions are forbidden. So, he wrote a letter – and made hundreds of copies – to Mahanoy Township Supervisors – each mailed by one prisoner. Within weeks, the local Township Supervisors had received over 400 letters – and they appeared in a local paper looking disturbed. When a local reporter tried to belittle him by referencing his criminal conviction, Arroyo simply went back to work, and before long over 900 letters flooded the offices of the Township Supervisors.”

Arroyo’s story of success can also be heard in his own voice from Prison Radio, a prisoner media outlet which is broadcast on independent radio stations around the country. The show is titled “Slaying the Giant.”

Shortly after the slaying, Arroyo was moved to another facility in what he considered to be an act of retaliation for his effectiveness. His new home: SCI Frackville. Yes, that’s a real place.

Unfortunately, Arroyo’s environmental victory at Mahanoy is still a rare success story. But there are some significant developments in the arena of jailhouse environmentalism on the horizon. One of the most ambitious examples is also happening in Western Pennsylvania, through the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC). The ALC is a relatively new organization, founded in 2013 by two young lawyers based in Pittsburgh. They’ve already gained quite a bit of notoriety for their involvement in defending Mumia Abu Jamal’s ability to speak (pre-recorded or via telephone) at college ceremonies and to access needed healthcare, as well as ongoing representation of political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz who was recently released from solitary after over 22 years.

In 2014, between representing prisoners facing solitary confinement and civil liberties violations, the group made headlines after releasing a report about Pennsylvania’s SCI Fayette prison – literally operating in the middle of a coal ash dump – titled No Escape. The report put a prisoner-led fight against toxic coal ash pollution in the town of LaBelle on the map.

What’s known as “fugitive” coal ash appears to have been making prisoners and guards alike sick from respiratory and skin problems associated with this toxic material. Nearby residents in the town have also complained of impacts from the waste site, which is laden with arsenic, mercury, lead and over a dozen other heavy metals.

More than 5 million tons of coal ash has been dumped in LaBelle over the past 10 years, and a rough estimate of the amount of arsenic in that coal ash – based on Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection records obtained by ALC – is about 195 tons. Much of that was in violation of the so-called “beneficial use permits” that limited arsenic content to 41-48mg/kg of coal ash. The coal ash being dumped was tested to have as much as 97mg of arsenic per kilogram of ash.

In addition to the coal ash dump, the boiler system for SCI Fayette burns coal for its power, creating air pollution as well as additional coal ash waste, which is then deposited at the coal ash dump across the road. Now there is a recently permitted coal terminal that transfers 3 to 10 million tons of coal per year from boats to rail and vice versa, also right next to the prison.

It doesn’t stop there. FirstEnergy, the company that operates the massive Bruce Mansfield coal-fired power plant, has announced that they will begin shipping up to 3 million tons of coal ash from that facility down the Monongahela River to be dumped at LaBelle starting in 2017. The Mansfield plant was recently required to stop using its current coal ash impoundment, called Little Blue, which was found to be poisoning the ground water of nearby residents.

The No Escape report analyzed hundreds of responses from a survey that ALC sent to all the prisoners at SCI Fayette. This year, they are planning a follow-up report in hopes of shutting down the whole nightmarish operation.

Arroyo’s prisoner-led environmental campaign at SCI Mahanoy stopped a coal power plant from being built; ALC’s support for the prisoner-led campaign against SCI Fayette could help shut down both industrial polluters – the prison and the coal ash dump.

In this scenario, prisoners go from being viewed as less than human (the only people who can still legally be subjugated as slaves under the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution) to the forefront of the movement for a livable planet.

But a founder of ALC, Dustin McDaniel, says that developing the relationships between prisoners, criminal justice activists, local community members and environmentalists has come with some significant challenges. For one, while environmental groups have responded positively, they tend to look at the effort as something that can help advance their own agendas. In other words, they aren’t motivated by working for the well-being of prisoners so much as they see another angle to take on the energy industry.

“The environmentalists who have really come up big for us in SCI Fayette are the ones who were more interested in crossing over into the mass incarceration issue than in facilitating their own agendas,” says McDaniel.

It’s a familiar sentiment for those who have followed the challenges between environmental justice activism and the classic conservation-style of politics. While McDaniel sees potential in the alliances they are forging, he also presents a tone of caution at some possible pitfalls.

For one, he’s noticed that some larger groups that have joined their effort focus narrowly on regulatory agencies and permit hearings, and seem to set the bar very low for what is considered a victory, losing sight of longer-term goals.

For McDaniel, those goals include addressing the immediate environmental impact in LaBelle as well as confronting the broken system of incarceration that is locking people up at globally unprecedented rates in chronically toxic conditions.

The Environmental Movement to Come

Linda Almazan is the mother of Arizona prisoner Robert Gamez. She is also the founder of an environmental justice group, Mother’s Safe Air Safe Water Force. Almazan was born in Tucson, Arizona in 1961 and continues to live there. She began the group in response to her family and members of the community who were impacted by the Tucson International Airport Area, also known to the EPA as the Trichloroethylene Groundwater Contamination Area, AFP 44 – a military Superfund site on the agency’s National Priorities List.

She came to the intersection of incarceration and ecology through a very personal experience.

“After various allegations of cancers including renal cell carcinomas with metastasis bone disease and kidney cancer, as well as suicides during 2012 and 2013,” she explained, “my son began to write to lawyers and civil rights activists to help the inmates get their rights to medical care enforced.”

As a result, he eventually became part of a health-related class-action lawsuit with other prisoners and their family members. But, after her dealings with superfund-related-sickness in her hometown, Almazan saw another angle to her son’s situation.

Her story could be a fable for the new, revolutionary environmental movement that is afoot.

The Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence, where Gamez has sat in the solitary unit at a supermax facility for 16 years, is surrounded by contaminated former military sites and copper mines. (Not to be confused with Florence, Colorado, near Cañon City, where the notorious federal supermax sits alongside a dozen other prisons, surrounded by former uranium mines and mills.)

The town of Florence, Arizona is located in Pinal County. It’s essentially a military base turned prison town. Along with the supermax where Gamez resides, there is also a large immigrant detention center, operated by private prison giant Corrections Corporation of America.

A mile-and-a-half north of the prison is the Florence Military Reservation, and next to that the Arizona Army National Guard Florence Range. Both are superfund sites which the EPA identifies as posing a potential risk to human health and the environment due to contamination by hazardous wastes. To the east of the prison is a 640-acre site known as Williams Field Bomb Target Range #6, where the surface removal of toxic munitions debris from 100-pound practice bombs was supposedly completed within the past ten years. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality calls these sites Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS), and admits to more than 200 such properties located throughout the state.

Add to that a proposal which surfaced in 2013 to open up 1,700 acres in Florence to a form of copper mining which shoots sulfuric acid into the underground copper veins surrounding the prison town. The company, Florence Copper, Inc., has proposed a combination of 24 injection and extraction wells in the area, which could impact the water supply for both prisoners and the surrounding community.

Almazan is opposed to this waste injection project, and is also pushing for the Superfund areas surrounding the prison where her son resides to be recognized on the EPA’s National Priorities List. According to Gamez’s mother, if these sites are removed from Superfund designation, the chance of getting any semblance of environmental justice for the prisoners there plummets.

Her experience of personal dealings with contaminated sites around Tucson, and research of similar situations elsewhere in the state, points to her conclusion that “Arizona is practically one giant Superfund site.” But that isn’t a deterrent to her or her son.

Almazan is now organizing through her local environmental justice group, which she founded in 2014, to push the EPA towards allowing prisoners to apply for the agency’s Environmental Justice Small Grants Program to generate resources for advocacy work on both sides of the prison walls.

EPA and Prisoners’ Rights

As HRDC’s Prison Ecology Project and the ALC’s campaign in SCI Fayette have shown, documenting impacts to prisoners could become central to the long-term strategy of exposing and eventually shutting down prisons and curtailing industrial activities that put prisoners’ lives at risk. In fact, these risks may actually be in violation of environmental protections intended under Executive Order 12898. The Order, which passed under President Clinton in 1994 and became known as the Environmental Justice Act, was really just a clarification of an older and hard-won law: the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI of that Act prohibits discrimination in the permitting of any activity that the federal government has a hand in.

Unfortunately, the EPA’s position on prisoners and environmental justice is anything but clear. After a year of collecting prisoner correspondence, perusing environmental reviews of prisons and digging through EPA records, the Prison Ecology Project followed up with the EPA, asking specifically why Region III’s 12-year-long prison initiative never once mentioned environmental justice in regard to prisoners.

Roy Seneca, an EPA press officer at Region III, replied on behalf of the agency in December 2015, simply stating, “We believe that EPA Region III did operate in accordance with Title 6 while conducting our prison initiative review.”

When pressed to elaborate, Seneca continued, “EPA uses the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau for EJ Screen. You may want to check with the Census Bureau to verify where inmates are included in census data. Our regional EPA office uses the EJ Screen data as a tool. If you have more questions about the EJ Screen tool overall, you should direct them to the EPA Headquarters press office.”

So that was the next stop. The EPA’s press contact for Environmental Justice, Julia Valentine, responded with an indication that the agency does use census data that would include prisoners. It’s not too far-fetched to want to believe her. After all, governing bodies across the country have been counting prisoners as a way of gerrymandering voting districts for decades now (despite most prisoners having no access to a ballot). It’s just that, unlike the shady dealings of state legislatures nationwide, the EPA seems to have nothing to show for it. But Valentine, being a diligent press officer, did not concede. Instead she offered some re-assurance, maybe even a glimmer of hope.

“EPA is committed to addressing the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies,” she wrote in an email to the Prison Ecology Project in December 2015.

Valentine continued, “EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation, including prison populations. While most aspects of the management and regulation of prisons fall under the purview of the U.S. Department of Justice, EPA will ensure that we do our part to ensure that environment justice is addressed in all our policies and programs that impact these populations.”

But after two-and-a-half decades of dealing with prison-related bureaucracy, Wright is not inclined to believe it until he sees it.

“After having our staff pore over two decades of environmental documents from prison construction, interview EPA staff, consult with prominent environmental organizations and attend the largest environmental law conferences in the country.... We’ve seen nothing that points to the EPA, or any other government agency, having ever looked seriously at the impact of environmental justice issues on prisoners,” he stated.

Prisoners vs. the Nuclear Industry

The only example that the Prison Ecology Project could cite after a year of investigation was an October 2012 hearing in front of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). An administrative judge noted prison-related testimony of expert witnesses in a challenge to extending the licenses of New York’s Indian Point nuclear reactors, which were all set to expire by 2015.

The effort was headed up by the Clearwater group of Hudson River clean-up fame. The group has been active in New York’s Hudson Valley for nearly 50 years.

One witness for Clearwater at the hearing, Dr. Michael Edelstein, an environmental psychologist and professor at Ramapo College, pointed out that the NRC had failed to take into account minority populations at the Sing Sing prison and other area jails when doing environmental justice analysis.

“[NRC] has an obligation to have enough familiarity with the social system that they’re working with, to recognize environmental justice issues that may not be visible in the type of analysis that’s done now,” Edelstein stated in his testimony.

A former prisoner, Anthony Papa, also testified at the hearing. Papa, who served a 15-to-life sentence at Sing Sing under the infamous Rockefeller drug laws, pointed out that overcrowding and the lack of ventilation systems posed serious problems with protecting or evacuating prisoners.

“You can’t shelter in place. I lived there for 12 years,” Papa said. “The survival instinct would lead to total chaos.”

In November 2013, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB), the trial court of the NRC, found in favor of Clearwater and against Entergy, the company that owns the Indian Point nuclear power plants, and the NRC staff. But the victory, groundbreaking as it may have been, was ultimately hollow.

While the ASLB found that there was “no legal foundation for the NRC Staff’s failure” to analyze potential accidents, the Board ultimately said the NRC should merely take note of the greater impact on environmental justice populations when making the decision about relicensing.

In this way the NRC’s general approach to environmental justice was consistent with the EPA and every other agency that is supposed to be bound by the Civil Rights Act and Executive Order 12898.

Just last year, a joint effort by legal advocates EarthJustice and media hounds at the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) revealed an ugly reality: in over 20 years since the Executive Order, not a single complaint filed through the public comment process has resulted in a formal finding of environmental discrimination, “despite having received hundreds of complaints, some exhaustively documented,” said CPI staff reporters.

Beyond Hollow Victories

Organizing around mass incarceration and environmental racism makes for a powerful nexus of potential social change. Environmental justice activism, since its inception with EPA hostage-taking by Love Canal residents in 1971, offers a harbinger of what the broader environmental movement is capable of. The mass appeal of environmental justice’s “climate justice” offshoot, for example, turned out nearly half-a-million people in the streets of New York City during the 2014 People’s Climate March.

Gaining environmental justice for prisoners could change the face of both the prisoners’ rights and ecological movements. It could simultaneously open up environmentalism to the millions currently in prison or on their way there (the latest statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate that one in 36 people in the U.S. are under some form of correctional supervision), and bring a wave of new activists and resources to the fight against mass incarceration. After all, the civil rights movement that resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 got its momentum from the fight for racial desegregation, but ended up with even broader-reaching victories. Arguably, some of the strongest human rights and environmental laws on the books came from the momentum and inspiration stemming from the Civil Rights struggle.

Perhaps there’s good reason for agencies like the EPA to be nervous about broadening the use of environmental justice policies to include prisoners. If prisoners, who are at the bottom of the social ladder – and even still considered slaves under the Constitution – are able to secure environmental justice protections, could that send rippling effects towards other environmentally-impacted communities left hanging by the EPA?

Deep changes in our society could occur at the intersection of environmental justice and criminal justice. As alluded to by McDaniel with the ALC, it may involve a collision of sorts, where environmentalists will need to step further beyond their comfort zone than ever before.

“One of the first problems is thinking that the issues are mutually exclusive, because they’re not,” Wright said in a recent interview with the Earth First! Journal on the prison/ecology intersection. “When we look at these military bases that have been destroyed from decades of dumping diesel and jet fuel on the ground, spilling chemical weapons into the ground, and everything else, and then they convert those same military bases into prisons, I think this is very much an indictment of the military and their system of military basing. Likewise when prisons are being built on abandoned uranium mines or coal mines, I think that’s an indictment of our whole mining system and our resource extraction system in this country. It’s not just a criminal justice issue.”

He added, “While they’re siting prisons in these remote rural areas that are destroying the environment, they’re also taking prisoners far away from their families and their social networks, and the cities that they come from; it’s really a cascading effect of injustice. I think certainly the time has come to end people looking at these as isolated issues because they’re not isolated issues. They’re very interconnected and each one, I think as soon as you look at one ... it’s like peeling an onion. As soon as you peel away one layer of injustice, you’re finding five more underneath it.”

According to HRDC staff attorney Sabarish Neelakanta, “There are a multitude of reasons why prisoners face obstacles in securing environmental protections. The physical and psychological isolation that confront prisoners on a daily basis can be debilitating. Many are unable to cope with the reality of life behind bars. A sense of hopelessness and lack of self-worth is all too common.”

Neelakanta, who’s also on the advisory board of the Prison Ecology Project, notes that although the Project hasn’t initiated any environmental litigation against prisons to date, its parent organization, HRDC, has a long record of victories in challenging prison policies surrounding censorship, as well as exorbitant phone rates and wrongful deaths.

“While prisons often operate under a veil of secrecy and behind razor wire fences, they are not impenetrable,” he says.

Letcher County resident Tom Sexton hasn’t met Wright and Neelakanta, but seems to concur. Sexton is a community activist and former Whitesburg City Council member in Eastern Kentucky, where the aforementioned BOP facility is slated for construction. When asked about his thoughts on the prospect of his community becoming a prison town, he stated, “No matter where you decide to put your shovel in, be it environmental organizing, labor organizing, racial justice organizing, or whatever the case may be, there is a shared goal of making the world a more level playing field. I think that if you’re going to do this work, no matter your area of expertise, you should be ready to oppose injustice wherever it presents.”

Sexton recalled the work of Joe Begley, who organized some of the first protests against strip mining in 1977 and was later invited to the White House for the signing of a mine regulation bill.

“Begley, who was first and foremost an anti-mountaintop mining activist from my hometown of Whitesburg, also organized with the Black Panthers around civil rights,” Sexton says. “So, if we care enough to examine it, we’ll see that there’s a certain level of intersectionality to all of our work, regardless of our specialty.”

If the BOP stays the course, Sexton’s wisdom could be put to the test soon. As of December 2015, Congress approved $444 million to construct a new federal prison. U.S. Representative Hal Rogers of Eastern Kentucky – one of the major proponents of siting a prison in Letcher County – heads up the Congressional appropriations committee. Rogers has been long backed by the industry interests in the region, which would most likely see the lion’s share of those funds via land sales and contracts.

Since the release of a Final Environmental Impact Statement last summer, Rogers has been calling the plan a done deal. But the BOP never released a Record of Decision, which is the technical completion of the intensive public input process under the National Environmental Policy Act. For opponents of the project, that signifies the actual beginning of the fight, where a legal challenge could be filed against the EIS.

In April 2016, the BOP decided to re-open the public comment period and attempt to protect itself from the most obvious oversights by releasing a “Revised” EIS, with an additional 6,000 pages of appendices attached. At the time of this publication, a Record of Decision remains to be seen, but there are signs that the opposition is making good use of the extra time and growing on both the local and national levels – including plans for a Convergence Against Toxic Prisons planned in Washington, D.C. from June 11 to 13, 2016, which involves a day of action targeting the BOP and its corporate PR firm on the Letcher County prison project, Cardno.

Starting with the Prison in Your Backyard

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, once a prisoner himself, said the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. American society will surely someday be found guilty of maintaining its massive industrial warehouses for people – mainly poor and people of color – right up to the point of sewage literally oozing out of the seams. But there is no reason to wait on that verdict.

Thankfully, Paul Wright is not the kind of person to relay information and walk away. Most everything he has done with his life since Prison Legal News began has been aimed at having a tangible impact on the prison system.

The Prison Ecology Project is no different. Rather than despair over the magnitude and complexity of injustice taking place in some 5,000 prisons and jails across the country, Wright offers a simple blueprint for the next steps.

“If people look around in their communities, and just ask simple questions: Where is the local jail built? Where is the local prison built? And what’s the environmental impact of that? And then just start answering those questions,” he says.

“We don’t have to go to Oregon, to the middle of the woods, to find environmental injustice. In most cases it’s right here in our own communities, and that environmental injustice is perpetuating another injustice through our corrections system.”

This article was originally published by the Earth First! Newswire in May 2016; it is reprinted with permission of the author, with minor edits.


 

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