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Prisoner Education Guide

Articles by Panagioti Tsolkas

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 run the water through a two-step treatment process before it reaches 2,300 prisoners and 1,000 corrections employees.

According to a July 2018 news report, the prison’s water plant in the town of Tracy has spent much of its life offline, requiring bottled water to be provided at the Deuel facility. Since October 2017 alone, the prison spent around $417,000 on bottled water.

The problem is not a new one. Like other prisoners across the country, those held at Deuel had been complaining about the taste and color of the water, seemingly without recourse, until a state environmental agency finally stepped in.

Deuel opened in 1953 and has been expanded several times since then. It serves primarily as a reception center, though it also houses California Prison Industry Authority slave labor programs, including a furniture fabrication plant, a farm where cattle grain is grown and a 1,200-cow ...

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 what is in this water, but I do know that it is in my hair, eyes, nose, and skin,” Coleman wrote in a letter to the Boston Globe. “I ingest it, and with each swallow, I fear for my long-term health.”

He wasn’t alone. In December 2016, the Norfolk Inmate Council, composed of prisoners tasked with representing the facility’s incarcerated population, conducted a survey on health-related problems. They presented a report to the administration indicating that almost two-thirds of the prisoners surveyed said they suffered from rashes and other skin ailments. Around half noted intestinal issues.

The council’s report also cited problems with water sampling results at the prison, which were collected from the source rather than the tap, possibly missing major dangers including lead and other sediment from corroded pipes. The water, they said, was not only dark in color but also clogs filters in the communal ...

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 very flattering. For example, last year the New York Times Magazine featured a high-profile lawsuit challenging solitary confinement conditions at ADX that have driven once-sane prisoners into total madness, including reports of self-castration and prisoners eating their own fingers. 

Florence was once known for coal mining and uranium milling, and while the beauty of the area endured despite such industrial activity, there’s not much left aside from prisons as a form of economic development. The ADX is one of a dozen state and federal facilities located in the remote region.

In 1993, construction of the federal prison complex in Florence reportedly enjoyed a 97% approval rate from area residents who were starved for jobs. While it experienced local fanfare, the facility was also a subject of national controversy due to the residual contamination of coal and uranium processing to which prisoners would be exposed and the extreme isolation they ...

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.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 ...

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 violations.

When asked about the successful legal complaint that her organization filed, Renee Victoria Hoyos, executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network (TCWN), responded, “I’m surprised because it’s hard for the state to enforce on itself, and they don’t like to do that.”

In April 2017, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) fined the state’s Department of Correction more than two years after TCWN filed a lawsuit over repeated sewage spills at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary. The years of well-documented pollution led to almost half-a-million dollars in fines against the state’s prison system.

The facility, located in Lauderdale County, was contaminating the Hatchie River – a waterway that was called “the most scenic and unspoiled in West Tennessee” in a recent USA Today news report about the incident.

But West Tennessee wasn’t the only prison where TDEC found problems. The agency also cited sewage-related issues at ...

Former Michigan Prisoner Claims Sewage Spill Linked to Hepatitis C

by Panagioti Tsolkas

"That was just like opening a fire hydrant" is how former Michigan state prisoner Glen Lilly described the thousands of pounds of raw sewage that flooded the basement at the Parnall Correctional Facility as a result of a plumbing disaster that spanned several months.

“It shot onto the wall and was splattering all the way to the ceiling,” he added.

Lilly, a 55-year-old union carpenter, had no formal training as a plumber. He was serving a 26-month sentence for driving offenses and was released on parole in February 2017. But the experience at Parnall followed him home in the form of breathing problems, bronchitis and fatigue, which eventually led to a diagnosis of hepatitis C that Lilly claims is linked to repeated exposure to sewage in the prison’s basement.

Officials had ordered him to open a cleanout valve to relieve pressure that caused shower areas and toilets at the facility to back up with human waste.

A Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) investigation into the incident, obtained by the Detroit Free Press under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, affirmed testimony from Lilly and other prisoners regarding the sewage spill.

Lilly earned $96 a month ...

Michigan Prison Plagued by Sewage Problems Despite Repeated Complaints

by Panagioti Tsolkas

The Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson County, Michigan doesn’t have an official gas chamber. In fact, it’s considered a low-security prison. But recent conditions at Parnall have been poisoning prisoners through prolonged exposure to sewage gas.

Last year, Kevin Blair, Sr. watched his son, also Kevin Blair, a 40-year-old Michigan prisoner, deteriorate from a mysterious malady over a period of months before a test finally revealed what was wrong: he had unsafe levels of methane in his blood.

On January 20, 2017, Blair, Jr. filed a grievance complaining about long-standing air-quality problems and “toxic gases emitted from behind [his] cell” in Parnall’s 9 Block.

Another prisoner, Christopher Harvey, had submitted a grievance a week earlier after being woken by a guard telling him that his help was needed to clean sewage out of the facility’s basement.

“He stated that I would get paid,” Harvey explained. “I said no. My reason is that I’m not qualified to clean up such vast messes of human excrement. Hazmat or Servpro needs to be called. We are living in unsafe conditions. Soon we will get sick. There is human feces in the air, and the basement is flooded with sewage ...


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