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Articles by Panagioti Tsolkas

Plans for a New Federal Prison on Coal Mine Site in Kentucky Withdrawn

Could the failure to move forward on USP Letcher indicate an end of the Appalachian prison boom?

by Panagioti Tsolkas

“I refuse to have our community’s future built on the backs of other people.” That’s what Letcher County, Kentucky resident Elizabeth Sanders said to an NBC reporter last year ...

“It Smelled Like Death”: Reports of Mold Contamination in Prisons and Jails

by Panagioti Tsolkas

“There was big, dark, gray, blackish mildew around the air vent and that’s where the air was coming from … it smelled like death.” – Candie Hailey, Rikers Island pre-trial detainee

Over the past several years, Prison Legal News has focused attention on environmental health impacts that ...

Prisoners File Environmental Lawsuit Against Proposed Federal Prison in Kentucky

by Panagioti Tsolkas

More than three years after a controversial environmental review process for a new federal prison, conducted by the federal Bureau of Prisons and its consulting firm Cardno, attorneys filed suit in November 2018 on behalf of 21 federal prisoners spread across the country. The plaintiffs claim they were not properly informed about plans to construct the $444 million prison on top of a former coal mine in Letcher County, Kentucky, next to an active mine and coal sludge pond, where they could be housed once the facility is built. The Abolitionist Law Center (ALC), an organization that advocates for prisoners’ rights, is listed as both a plaintiff and counsel in the case.

The complaint was filed following multiple delays in the prison construction project caused by challenges from local land owners and advocacy organizations – including the Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization – which initially coordinated opposition efforts that generated tens of thousands of public comments opposing the facility. [See: PLN, Oct. 2015, p.30].

The lawsuit states that federal prisoners should have been considered parties with legally-required access to documents, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS ...

Litigation Surrounding Radon Exposure at Connecticut Prison Moves Forward

by Panagioti Tsolkas

“We’re talking about levels in some places that are equivalent to smoking 2½ packs of cigarettes a day,” said Lori A. Welch-Rubin, one of the attorneys who filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners at the Garner Correctional Institution (GCI) in Newtown, Connecticut. The case centers around exposure to radon gas – a known carcinogen – far above levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In September 2018, a federal district court denied in part and granted in part the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case. The court allowed Eighth Amendment claims arising after June 18, 1993 to proceed, as well as claims for injunctive and declaratory relief.

Andrius Banevicius, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Correction (DOC), said the state was reviewing the September 27 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Janet Bond Arterton, claiming the state had begun routine testing for radon at GCI and recently installed a radon mitigation system at the facility.

Welch-Rubin was unconvinced.

“They still haven’t tested where the prisoners are, so we don’t know if what they are now doing is even adequate,” she said.

According to Welch-Rubin, the mitigation system doesn’t cover all ...

Arkansas DOC Says Water is Safe, but Most Tests Not Conducted in Housing Units

by Panagioti Tsolkas

In July 2018, former prisoners and their family members in Arkansas raised concerns about a variety of issues at a hearing with state lawmakers, included concerns about the water quality at several prisons. One ex-prisoner said the water at the East Arkansas Unit was not even “fit to take a shower in.”

Water quality problems should always be a red flag when a prison’s water system is operating far beyond its capacity. But the Arkansas Department of Corrections preferred to dodge a thorough investigation rather than address a possible crisis.

Prisoners had been complaining of brown, dirty water at four state prisons, the Tucker, East Arkansas, Cummins and North Central Units and their nearby satellite camps, which use a common water system. Collectively the facilities house around half the state’s almost 18,000 prisoners.

According to news reports, the Tucker Unit, which captured headlines in November 2017 when several prisoners took two guards hostage, has a daily maximum demand of more than 890,000 gallons of water – far above the system’s capacity of 590,000 gallons per day.

Water quality experts said the discoloration was likely due to high levels of iron and manganese, according ...

California Prison Spends $417,000 on Bottled Water as Contamination, Violations Continue

by Panagioti Tsolkas

What was intended as a state-of-the-art, $32 million prison water treatment plant has turned into yet another state infrastructure boondoggle. Since the plant’s completion in 2010, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) Deuel Vocational Institution, which uses brackish wells on its grounds, is supposed to ...

Water at Massachusetts Prison Under Scrutiny from Prisoners, Advocates, Public Agencies

by Panagioti Tsolkas

When Wayland Coleman, a prisoner at MCI-Norfolk in Massachusetts, stepped out of the shower last year he noticed something strange. It was as if the towel he used to dry himself was, in his words, “used to wipe dirt off the floor.”

“I don’t know exactly ...

Federal Correctional Complex at the Center of City’s Water Debacle

by Panagioti Tsolkas

Any attention that Florence,Colorado receives from the world outside its rural and mountainous borders tends to involve the federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) supermax facility, built near the city 25 years ago. And news coverage of the prison, known as the ADX, doesn’t tend to be ...

Environmental Protection Agency Finally Recognizes Prisons in Screening Tool

by Panagioti Tsolkas

Two years ago, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), which publishes Prison Legal News, introduced the concept of prison environmentalism, 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 ...

One of Tennessee’s Most Pristine Rivers Contaminated with Prison Sewage

by Panagioti Tsolkas

It's a rare case when one state agency penalizes another with more than a slap on the wrist. This year, in a move that surprised local environmentalists, Tennessee joined the growing list of states where environmental agencies have imposed fines against prisons for chronic water quality ...