Controversy arose at a November 12, 2015 Escambia County Commission meeting in Pensacola, Florida over a plan to construct a new jail. The county’s old jail had been damaged by a flood and natural gas explosion the previous year. Of three possible locations for the new facility, a consulting firm recommended a parcel of land that included the former site of the Escambia Wood Treating Company (EWTC).
DLR Group, the consulting firm hired by the Commission to plan a new 1,476-bed jail, was reported as saying the site had a greater upside than the other potential locations because it would be about $2 million cheaper to acquire.
EWTC was forced to close by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the 80s, after it was found to have contaminated an underground aquifer and hundreds of thousands of tons of soil.
The EWTC location was designated a Superfund site, resulting in 358 families being moved out of the area between 1997 and 2003 to avoid exposing them to toxic dust during the clean-up process.
Despite a settlement that stated the EWTC location would not be used as residential property, the tainted site, now called the Mid-Town Commerce site, was a contender to become a home to Escambia County’s new jail.
Wilma Subra, a chemist and president of the Subra Company, which advised Citizens Against Toxic Exposure (CATE) during the mass relocation from the contaminated EWTC site, explained, “It’s changing the land use the remedy was designed for ... when they did the cleanup, they did it for industrial use based on an eight-hour standard ... people should not be allowed to live there 24 hours [a day].”
According to federal laws intended to uphold the basic right to healthy environmental conditions, prisoners are entitled to the same protections as non-prisoners. And in the case of a local jail such as the one proposed in Escambia County, many prisoners have not been found guilty of a crime and are presumed innocent while awaiting trial.
More specifically, to subject prisoners to heightened risks of adverse health impacts may present an environmental justice problem for the new jail, since incarceration trends nationwide have been found to consistently and disproportionately affect low-income communities and people of color.
Unfortunately, Escambia County is not new to adverse impacts on prisoners in its facilities. In April 2014, the county’s jail experienced extreme flooding reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans in 2005. The flooding triggered a chain of events that led to a massive explosion at the facility which killed two prisoners and injured over 100 other prisoners and employees. [See: PLN, July 2015, p.24].
Interviews following the explosion indicated that the odor of gas was noticeable and had been reported by both prisoners and staff before the incident.
The explosion occurred amid a five-year federal investigation of the jail that found inadequate management had led to routine violations of prisoners’ constitutional rights, including “appalling” levels of violence, “clearly inadequate” mental health care and a practice of segregating prisoners according to race.
In response to concerns about the contaminated location for the new jail, the DLR Group pointed out that “abandoned landfill and industrial facilities – so-called Brownfield sites – [have] been used to build jails and even juvenile detention centers in other states.” While that is correct – the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City is built on a landfill, for example – it doesn’t mean that practice is acceptable.
Although the DLR Group’s statement was aimed at normalizing the practice of housing prisoners on toxic waste sites, the Prison Ecology Project of the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), PLN’s parent organization, disagreed and submitted a comment to the Escambia County Commission prior to its November 12, 2015 vote on the site for the new jail.
HRDC urged the commissioners to examine the issue closely, stating: “[t]he same communities that have experienced the brunt of pollution from contaminated industrial sites – a phenomenon often known as environmental racism – can anticipate that their friends and family members may now end up back on those same contaminated sites as victims of a broken criminal justice system that places no value on their health and lives.”
At the county commission meeting, a former 30-year resident of a neighborhood that was relocated due to the EWTC superfund site, Lisa Wiggins, asked, “Why would you spend millions of dollars to get people out of the area, then spend millions to put people back out there? A lot of people have passed on from cancer and other different ailments ... you take the chance of 20 years down the line having to pay all these prisoners. Envision you had a child that was arrested and put in jail, and you were one of the people who were relocated. How would you feel?”
HRDC director Paul Wright noted that “[t]he County should also take into consideration costs associated with potential worker’s compensation for employees who may be impacted by the residual toxicity of exposure to this site, along with the possibility of facing lawsuits from prisoners regarding civil rights and health impacts.”
The County Commissioners voted against the Superfund site and the two alternative locations for the jail, opting instead – for better or worse – to stick with the flood-prone site of the former jail.
As reported by the Pensacola News Journal in February 2016, the Escambia County jail experienced seven prisoner deaths, from illness and suicide, over the course of 14 months. Assistant County Administrator Chip Simmons acknowledged the jail had lost roughly half of its housing capacity in the 2014 flood and explosion, resulting in overcrowding that may have contributed to some of the deaths. The News Journal noted the jail has a daily population of almost 800, though its current recommended capacity is only 580 prisoners.
The county announced in February 2016 that it had hired a full-time medical director for the jail; it also announced the creation of other jail healthcare positions, including a health services administrator and two new “clinical coordinators.” Further, the county placed healthcare administration at the jail under the oversight of the Escambia County Public Safety Medical Director.
Where the core issue of jail overcrowding is concerned, the News Journal also reported that the county was engaging in negotiations with the owners of a 14.6-acre parcel of land adjoining the old jail.
However, acquisition of the new property involved several potential obstacles. For example, the county anticipated that the owners would likely request far more than the assessed value of the land. Additionally – and perhaps most significantly – the parcel, like the location of the old jail, is in the same flood plain that was responsible for the flood that led to the April 2014 explosion.
Those obstacles did not deter the county from proceeding, and in July 2016 the Escambia County Commission voted to purchase the parcel of land adjoining the old jail as the site for a new facility, for a sales price of $4.5 million. The total cost of constructing the jail, which will take around three years, was estimated at over $100 million.
Sources: Pensacola News Journal, www.grist.com
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