Activists speak out against a proposed Letcher County prison at a June 13 march in Washington, D.C. (Jordan E. Mazurek)

When Prisons Are Toxic to Both Humanity and the Environment

Activists are taking aim at mass incarceration, environmental pollution and the toxic prisons where the two problems meet.

BY John Washington

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'Our future can’t be built on fossil fuel industries any more than it can be built on prisons.'

Nestled in the hills of Letcher County, Kentucky, the Lilley Cornett Woods are a sea of biodiversity. The 554 acres are home to over 530 species of flowering plants and the endangered Indiana bat, but the surrounding area has not been so hospitable to life. Letcher County’s coal mines have poisoned the water of the Kentucky River Basin, making it unsafe not only for locals but for many who live downstream. Now the Federal Bureau of Prisons has chosen a former mountaintop removal strip mine as the site of a new facility—about three miles from the valuable Woods habitat. The proposed prison, which would hold 1,200 people and occupy nearly 700 acres, is opposed by both anti-prison and environmental activists, who say the move would have devastating consequences, both ecological and human.

On June 13, dozens of activists with the Fight Toxic Prisons movement marched to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) headquarters in Washington, D.C., to protest the proposed Letcher County prison. The march was the culmination of a three-day conference bringing together former political prisoners, activists for environmental justice, prison abolitionists and others.

The construction of prisons and jails on toxic sites is a widespread, but typically overlooked, problem. The infamous jail on Rikers Island in New York City provides an example: Since Rikers sits atop a landfill, both inmates and guards are exposed to noxious, foul-smelling methane. Nearby power plants emit nitrogen oxide and other pollutants, and the poor air quality poses a serious health hazard.

Bret Grote, an attorney with the Abolitionist Law Center who spoke at the Fight Toxic Prisons conference, described abominable conditions at the State Correctional Institution at Fayette in western Pennsylvania, located in the midst of a massive coal waste dump that “holds over 40 million tons of the foul sludge.” Tests by the Citizens Coal Council in 2012 found dangerously high levels of arsenic, boron, cobalt, iron, manganese and sulfate in the surface and ground water near the site.

Alex Friedmann, Associate Director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of Prison Legal News, believes the dangerous placement of these toxic prisons is intentional: “You don’t accidentally build a prison on a landfill, in a flood zone or in volcano warning zones,” he said at the convergence. “Prisoners are considered trash,” he added, “and we dispose of trash by putting it” out of sight.

On June 10, conference organizers met with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to argue that prisoners are a particularly vulnerable population that should be specially protected from environmental hazards. Currently, in the EPA’s Environmental Justice 2020 Action Agenda—guidelines meant to incorporate environmental justice into the EPA’s work—the agency lists “minority, low-income, and vulnerable” communities as groups that should receive special attention. Despite being disproportionately minority and low-income, prison populations are not mentioned. The activists are pressuring the EPA to demand the BOP further investigate the environmental and human impact of the proposed facility. The BOP did release a Draft Environmental Impact Statement in July 2015, but it did not directly consider potential health effects on the prisoners themselves, an oversight that advocates are seeking to rectify.

Chris Militscher, chief of the EPA’s National Environmental Policy Act Program Office, told activists the EPA has no “authority to question another federal agency.” Militscher, however, did admit that there “may be some environmental issues still outstanding that the Bureau of Prisons needs to address.” The BOP’s final decision, in part based on a final environmental impact statement, is expected later this summer, Prison Legal News reports.

The proposed Letcher County facility will be the fourth prison that Republican Congressman Hal Rogers has built in his district. The House Appropriations Committee, of which Rogers is the chair, allocated $444 million to build the prison in what a member of a local planning committee called a “great Christmas present for Letcher County.” But studies have shown prisons do little to help employment, and according to Tom Meagher and Christie Thompson, writing at the Marshall Project, “research suggests that prisons rarely bring significant economic improvements to rural communities where they are pitched as a salvation.”

The Letcher Governance Project (LGP), a local group formed this year in opposition to the planned prison, argues that the $444 million allocated to the prison could be used for more humane and effective ends, and is encouraging community members to speak out using the hashtag #our444million. “Some folks talk about things like if we had a state-of-the-art drug treatment and rehab facility here instead of the proposed prison,” wrote LGP organizer Elizabeth Sanders in an email to In These Times. “Something that could employ folks, address a serious problem here and invest in the most vulnerable within our communities.”

She added, “The LGP knows that our future can’t be built on fossil fuel industries any more than it can be built on prisons,” observing that many of the same groups—“indigenous communities, communities of color, and low-income communities”—are both on “the frontlines of climate change” and the ones “being locked up.” This link reflects “underlying policies” and systemic structures, she wrote. “It’s not a coincidence.”

To make matters worse, looming climate change may make the prison-environment connection even deadlier. Some scholars project that a hotter planet will lead to escalated violence and mass migration—and thus, there may be reason to expect more prisons, more walls and more militarized border security in the near future. For now, Panagioti Tsolkas of the Prison Ecology Project suggests that the most responsible way to protect our environment—both social and natural—is by making connections among rising activist movements and reducing, in his words, both parts per million (ppm) of CO2 while “simultaneously slashing the cpms (cops per million)” quotient.

As the world warms, activists are calling to protect the most vulnerable amongst us—not lock them away.

John Washington is a writer based in Arizona. He is the co-translator of A History of Violence (Verso, 2016), by Salvadoran author Óscar Martinez. Follow him on Twitter at @EndDeportations.

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