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Articles by Panagioti Tsolkas

Florida County Votes against New Jail on Former EPA Superfund Site, Opts to Stay in Flood Zone

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 ...

Texas: Complaint Filed Over Contaminated Water, Conditions at Eastham Unit

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has become a litmus test for dealing with toxic environmental conditions for prisoners. Earlier this year, prisoners at the Wallace Pack Unit and their advocates on the outside succeeded in obtaining a court order to provide clean water at that facility, which has well-documented high levels of arsenic in its water supply. [See: PLN, Nov. 2016, p.22; Sept. 2015, p.12].

On December 1, 2016, Joan Kain, an advocate acting on behalf of prisoners at the Eastham Unit, delivered a formal complaint to TDCJ officials in an effort to prompt changes at that prison. Her complaint was based primarily on reports from incarcerated activist Keith “Malik” Washington.

In November, Washington and 43 other prisoners were transferred to Eastham, an administrative segregation unit in Lovelady, Texas, following activities surrounding the September 9, 2016 national prisoner work strike that coincided with the 45th anniversary of the 1971 Attica uprising.
Eastham is one of the oldest prisons in the state. Washington reported that “the conditions there are much worse than at the Telford Unit,” where he was previously housed.

Kain noted that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) had posted notices warning local residents ...

Connecticut Prisoners File Suit Over Exposure to Radon Gas

This summer, prisoners at the Garner Correctional Institution (GCI) in Newtown, Connecticut responded to more than two decades of radon exposure at the facility by filing a class-action lawsuit.

“The length of time this went on didn’t have to happen,” said Lori Welch-Rubin, an attorney representing the prisoners along with attorneys Martin J. Minnella and Michael A. Stratton.

GCI opened in 1992 on land that was considered to have the highest potential for radon exposure, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) records. In a 2014 report, the state health department found that parts of the prison had in excess of five times the acceptable EPA levels of radon, a radioactive gas.

The prison houses around 550 prisoners in general population, close custody and a mental health unit, as well as pre-trial detainees and a small number of federal prisoners. It employs almost 300 staff members.

The lawsuit was filed in August 2016 on behalf of nine named plaintiffs and other GCI prisoners who were exposed to excessive indoor radon gas, a recognized carcinogen. According to the complaint, exposing prisoners to high levels of radon gas, “far in excess of any published safe level for more than 20 years,” constitutes ...

Hawaii Prison Relocation Project Fails to Skirt Environmental Review

While lawmakers in Hawaii have advanced bills to fast-track the relocation of a state prison, they were forced to concede that an environmental impact review could not be avoided.

In February 2016, the state legislature held a pair of hearings to consider House Bill 2388 and Senate Bill 2917, which both called for the relocation of the Oahu Community Correctional Center, currently sited in the Kalihi neighborhood on Honolulu. The facility would be relocated to the site of the old Halawa prison.

Under Governor David Ige’s proposal, the administration could access over $489 million through general obligation bonds for the prison’s relocation. The initial plan included a provision that would exempt the project from an environmental impact review, since the facility would be built on a prior prison site. By avoiding the review, construction could be expedited.

The Sierra Club of Hawaii was none too pleased. Marti Townsend, director of the Club’s Hawaii chapter, put the group’s objection into the record, stating, “Our position is simple: conduct an environmental assessment on the prison proposal as state law requires.”

Townsend continued, “How else can the project proponent know that the proposed site is the right location, that ...

Contaminated Sites and Prisons in New Jersey

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 ...

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 ...

Prison Ecology and the Water Crisis in Flint, Michigan

“Here’s your water filtration system. By the way, you have a warrant for your arrest.”

Jody Cramer, a former prisoner recently released from Michigan’s Genesee County Jail, said that was the story he heard from multiple other people who were locked up with him. Law enforcement officers distributing filters due to water contamination in the city were also serving warrants. Many of those arrested were jailed, and while they were awaiting trial and had not yet been convicted of a crime, potentially irreparable punishment may have begun the day they were incarcerated – as access to both uncontaminated water and the truth about it were hard to come by behind bars.

By now, much of the world knows that public officials in Michigan sat on their hands despite having knowledge that the public water system in the city of Flint was poisoning local residents with high concentrations of lead and Legionnaires Disease.

How far up the administrative ladder did such indifference go? Internal emails obtained through public records requests by the group Progress Michigan indicate that Governor Rick Snyder’s office was aware of a Legionnaires outbreak linked to using the Flint River as a city water source as ...

Environmental Problems Taint Plan for New Prison in Utah


by Panagioti Tsolkas

Utah is planning to open a 4,000-bed facility to replace the Utah State Prison in Draper. After several years of considering whether to relocate or rebuild the prison, the state has settled on relocation of the Utah Department of Corrections (DOC) facility.

Draper used to be a remote, rural area prior to becoming a prison town, but has since turned into a suburb. Draper’s mayor and city council members have been working with state lawmakers Greg Hughes, Howard Stephenson and LaVar Christensen to push the plan through the legislature.

In January 2014, the Prison Relocation and Development Authority (PRADA) released a “Master Plan for the Potential Relocation of the Draper Prison.” By the following month, Hughes and Christensen had moved a successful resolution through the House in favor of building the new prison complex.

In August 2015, PRADA narrowed the site selection process down from over 30 sites to just one. The chosen site comprises 693 acres in an area located just west of the Salt Lake City airport, and lawmakers are slated to purchase the land in early 2016.

However, the newly-selected location comes with a laundry list of environmental issues, including several that ...

One of the Largest Solar Power Companies in the U.S. has Ties to Prison Slave Labor

One of the Largest Solar Power Companies in the U.S. has Ties to Prison Slave Labor

by Panagioti Tsolkas

Prisoners at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, Oregon are making solar panels at a UNICOR factory for 93 cents an hour under a tax-break incentivized contract that claims to favor local manufacturing for a large photovoltaic system installed at two Oregon university campuses. The project was launched in 2012 by SolarCity, one of the most well-known solar energy installation companies in the country, founded by “cleantech” business magnate and poster-child for green capitalism, Elon Musk.

Instead of generating green jobs to boost the regional economy, as was intended by the Oregon Department of Energy’s $11.8 million in tax credits connected to the universities’ $27 million solar plan, the state simply bolstered corporate profits by allowing SolarCity to purchase through a vender, Suniva, which uses federal prisoners forced to work for sweatshop wages to manufacture solar panels.

According to the online environmental news outlet Grist, Suniva never responded to queries nor would UNICOR provide copies of contracts between the two, citing confidentiality provisions.

In an email to Grist, UNICOR spokesperson Marianne Cantwell claimed that the arrangement “provides inmates ...

Is Texas Poisoning Prisoners with Contaminated Water?

Is Texas Poisoning Prisoners with Contaminated Water?

by Panagioti Tsolkas

When the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) named a prison unit after the late warden Wallace Pack they should have guessed it would have a problem with water, as he once did. In 1981, Pack was drowned by a prisoner amid a high point of corruption in the Texas prison system. Pack’s death came just months after U.S. District Court Judge William Justice released his landmark decision in Ruiz v. Estelle, blasting Texas prisons for overcrowding, questionable medical practices and extreme brutality. Today the TDCJ is facing allegations of a different type of scandal: failing to protect prisoners from arsenic-tainted water.

Formerly incarcerated at the Wallace Pack Unit, Craig A. Converse, now a paralegal, is working to address long-standing violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act. A year before being paroled, Converse was transferred to the Pack Unit in Grimes County near Navasota. It was well into the spring months, the temperatures were high and he was often thirsty. He came to find out that prisoners at the Pack Unit were well-acquainted with thirst.

The TDCJ’s Pack Unit opened in 1983; it is currently a Type ...


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