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Articles by Panagioti Tsolkas

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 ...

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 contender ...

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 ...

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,” ...

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 the proposed building is ...

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 least a couple prisons within a ...

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 ...


 

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