by Panagioti Tsolkas
Two years ago, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), which publishes Prison Legal News, introduced the concept of prison ecology, building off the work of jailhouse lawyers, scholars and activists around the country. On many occasions spanning the last four decades of mass incarceration in the U.S. – in which prison populations increased nationally by 700% – prisoners and their advocates had noted environmental concerns in local battles involving prison operations and efforts to stop new prison construction.
In 2015, HRDC decided that the problem was far beyond the scope of local campaigns and launched the Prison Ecology Project to address the issue on a national level.
This summer, the Office of Environmental Justice, part of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), formally announced that it would be including the location of correctional facilities in its updated EJSCREEN mapping tool.
In August and September 2017, the EPA hosted online webinars about the agency’s new EJSCREEN map which, at the request of the Prison Ecology Project and over 130 other groups and activists, now includes more than 6,000 prisons, jails and other detention facilities.
This is a major victory; it means that anyone can now easily see where prisons are in proximity to sites of industrial pollution and other environmental concerns. The government agencies that rely on the EPA’s mapping tool to review environmental permits will have no excuse not to do the same.
Using this new feature, agencies and organizations can create reports, journalists can use the data for articles, and activists can organize around prisons and jails located near known environmental hazards.
But what the EJSCREEN map does not have is an accompanying narrative that includes input from prisoners’ letters, news articles and public records requests concerning many of the facilities listed on the map – such as those built on landfills, former coal mining sites and in areas with contaminated water supplies. The Prison Ecology Project is in the process of creating such a map, which will be populated with data collected primarily by HRDC.
An annotated map could even link scanned files of hand-written letters from prisoners, giving a personal connection to a direct source of information to which so few people outside of prison have access.
Therefore, please contact us if you have relevant information related to prisons or jails and the environment that belongs in the map that’s under development by the Prison Ecology Project and the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons. Email to: firstname.lastname@example.org or FightToxicPrisons@gmail.com, or write to: HRDC, Attn: Panagioti / PEP Project, P.O. Box 1151, Lake Worth, FL 33460.
For those who can’t attend EPA webinars, the agency’s Office of Environmental Justice staff have said they can offer trainings for smaller groups upon request. Perhaps the next step will be getting them to take those trainings into prisons, where prisoners can learn to use the EJSCREEN tool – which needs to be available as a resource in prisons and jails nationwide.
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