Could the fight against toxic prisons shape the future of environmentalism?
by Panagioti Tsolkas
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.
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 alone. When the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), an advocacy group led by former prisoners with 26 years under its belt, announced that it was starting a “prison ecology project,” letters began rolling in from incarcerated people around the country.
These prisoners were witnessing the sort of conditions that many Americans who fall into the category of environmentalists don’t expect to hear about in their own backyard: factory labor far below minimum wage with no safety gear; black mold infestations, contaminated water, hazardous waste and sewage overflows; deadly risks of floods or extreme heat; and a whole host of illnesses related to living in overcrowded, toxic facilities.
The U.S. maintains a massive prison system – the world’s largest, in fact. The political value of tough-on-crime rhetoric and legislation that drove the U.S. prison population to beat out every other country on the planet was often central to political campaign platforms in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
A bloated prison system became accepted as the norm and, on top of that, its growth was accompanied by an increasingly disproportionate representation of Black, Latino and Indigenous people, predominately from low-income communities. The most recent demographic statistics available show this to be the case not only on a national level, but in each and every state as well.
Today, the nation is four decades into the era of mass incarceration, where the prison population jumped 700 percent since the 1960s. Perhaps it’s high time we start asking: What are the environmental impacts of this racialized practice of justice that has been so extreme as to earn the moniker “The New Jim Crow”?
The planet vs. the police state
The simplest starting point in understanding prison pollution comes, ironically, from an agency of the same government that oversees the largest population of U.S. prisoners. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), once upon a time, summed it up like this:
“[C]orrectional institutions have many environmental matters to consider in order to protect the health of the inmates, employees and the community where the prison is located. Some prisons resemble small towns or cities with their attendant industries, population and infrastructure.
“Supporting these populations, including their buildings and grounds, requires heating and cooling, wastewater treatment, hazardous waste and trash disposal, asbestos management, drinking water supply, pesticide use, vehicle maintenance and power production, to name a few potential environmental hazards. And the inmate training programs offered at most institutions also have their own unique environmental challenges … the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been inspecting correctional facilities to see how they are faring. From the inspections, it is clear many prisons have room for improvement.”
This statement originated from the webpage of EPA’s Region III office, which covers the mid-Atlantic states. It was part of what the region’s staff had dubbed their “Prison Initiative,” where a series of inspections sparked by citizen complaints led to a host of violations in most every prison they visited between 1999 and 2003. Region III continued to report violations via their Prison Initiative ranging from air and water pollution to hazardous waste management and toxic spill control problems.
After the first batch of EPA enforcement actions against prisons in the mid-Atlantic, the lead inspector for the initiative, Garth Conner, issued a bleak report published in May 2003 in the National Environmental Enforcement Journal, noting that EPA staff had “completed six multi-media inspections at different kinds of prisons and … found widespread non-compliance at all of them.”
In an attempt to explain the phenomenon, Conner concluded: “[Prisons] are isolated from mainstream culture. Prison staff members are not often in attendance at environmental conferences or workshops intended for the regulated community.”
He was clearly on to something. The prison population was growing in leaps and bounds – a new prison was built at an average rate of one every two weeks in the ‘90s, almost entirely in rural communities. As of 2002, there were already more prisoners in this country than farmers.
Today, about 716 of every 100,000 Americans are in prison, whereas prisoners in nations across the world average 155 per 100,000 people – that’s not to mention more than 7 million on some form of correctional supervision such as parole, probation or house arrest at any given time.
The prison industry seemed like an unstoppable machine in those years, plowing forward at a breakneck pace to the world’s largest prison population. Then, in came the EPA Region III exposing a serious vulnerability in the prison system: It was a chronic polluter, violating public safety laws at near every turn.
But other EPA regions didn’t follow the lead on this disturbingly successful endeavor. On the contrary, the EPA seems to be erasing evidence of the initiative altogether.
Shortly after Prison Legal News, Paul Wright’s organization, began probing into the matter of how the EPA was inspecting prisons – or failing to – the clear and commonsense summary quoted above disappeared from the agency’s website, along with the laundry list spanning 10 years of prisons being fined for their environmental violations.
EPA staff alleged that this was part of a pre-existing plan to update their website, and HRDC’s Prison Ecology Project (PEP) has not yet located evidence to disprove that. If it’s indeed the truth, then the project was born none too soon, as it is now the only remaining online source acknowledging the existence of Region III’s short-lived Prison Initiative.
Prison pollution and its discontents
By mid-March 2015, the PEP would enter the fray in a more formal capacity, by taking the lead in coordinating a joint comment on the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for a new federal prison with national and regional heavy-hitters such as the Center for Biological Diversity and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, as well as a dozen other groups.
The EIS laid out plans for a new maximum-security facility in Letcher County, nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. The proposal would simultaneously impact the habitat of over 50 threatened and endangered species and place prisoners on top of a former mountaintop removal coal mining site ringed by sludge pond and processing operations, as well as oil and gas extraction, that have taken a well-documented heavy toll on human health in the area.
By July 2015, lines were further drawn as the PEP built momentum with 93 organizations joining its crusade of pushing the EPA’s “Environmental Justice 2020 Plan” (EJ 2020) to examine the unique and troubling experiences faced by prisoner populations nationwide.
Some deeper digging shows that it wasn’t just HRDC and the EPA that had been paying attention to environmental implications of mass incarceration. A plethora of examples have been surfacing under various state agencies as well as other non-governmental organizations, but the findings rarely surfaced outside local media sources, often in remote rural places. The PEP set out to change that, and by the fall of 2015 it had established an extensive portfolio of media coverage on Letcher County and the EJ 2020 plan.
Wright believes that a movement is growing. Though prisoners’ rights are his forte, he says it’s not just prisoners who should be worried about these environmental issues. “Whether they care about prison conditions or not, most Americans can agree that they don’t want prisoners’ feces in their drinking water,” he noted.
Again, he has first-hand familiarity with the prison system’s legacy of tainted water. While at Washington’s McNeil Island (prior to the facility being converted to a civil commitment center for sex offenders), he recalls: “I’d go to brush my teeth and the water coming out of the faucet was brown. I didn’t really think of this as a criminal justice issue; this is really an environmental issue.”
In a scene reminiscent of the classic novel “Papillon,” Wright went on to smuggle a sample of water out from the facility to have it tested for contaminants. While he was not able to prove foul play at the time, and his complaints to the state’s Department of Ecology failed to provoke an immediate response, he was later vindicated when the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) was found to be lying about its water quality reports.
From 1999 to 2002, 20 of 36 water pollution reports were falsified by the DOC in an attempt to cover up excess fecal coliform bacteria levels contained in the 350,000 gallons of wastewater discharged daily by the McNeil Island prison into the Puget Sound.
The experience would later prompt Wright’s publication, Prison Legal News – known to prisoners across the country as simply PLN – to conduct a nationwide report of prison-related water pollution. In 2007, the magazine published findings from 17 states indicating dozens of prisons had issues related to sewage and sanitation problems.
Just last year, a public records request by PLN resulted in the disclosure of new documents in Washington State. This was the source for the story of prisoner Jonathan Jones-Thomas, who worked on the sewage system at the Monroe Correctional Complex and sought to expose the problems of the facility’s failing wastewater system.
Despite years of documented sewage spills into the adjacent Skykomish River which runs into Puget Sound, Jones-Thomas says his attempts to blow the whistle on this public health hazard landed him in “the hole.” While he was in solitary confinement, the sewage spills continued at an accelerated pace, with no one on hand to address the problems of an outdated and overburdened sewage lagoon known as the Honor Farm site. In the past eight years, the facility has already spilled nearly half a million gallons in violation of state laws, with no penalties assessed against the DOC.
But the worst may be yet to come. The entire dike holding the sewage lagoon is failing. According to a 2012 report from a Department of Ecology inspector, this “could potentially release millions of gallons of untreated wastewater” into the river and surrounding wetlands.
Jones-Thomas was released in 2014 and went on to find employment as a wastewater management professional. He was back in prison again last year, but not as a prisoner. This time he was teaching a class to prisoners about employment opportunities in the field.
Despite his experiences and observations at Monroe being exposed by reports in the Seattle Weekly and other local media outlets, the environmental problems at the facility continue without an end in sight.
EPA and prisoners’ rights
As HRDC’s Prison Ecology Project has shown, documenting impacts to prisoners could become central to the long-term strategy of exposing and eventually shutting down prisons and curtailing industrial activities that put prisoners’ lives at risk. In fact, these risks may actually be in violation of environmental protections intended under Executive Order 12898.
The Order, which passed under President Clinton in 1994 and became known as the Environmental Justice Act, was really just a clarification of an older and hard-won law: the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI of that act prohibits discrimination in the permitting of any activity that the federal government has a hand in.
Unfortunately, the EPA’s position on prisoners and environmental justice is anything but clear. After a year of collecting prisoner correspondence, perusing environmental reviews of prisons and digging through EPA records, the Prison Ecology Project followed up with the EPA, asking specifically why Region III’s 12-year-long prison initiative never once mentioned environmental justice in regard to prisoners.
Roy Seneca, an EPA press officer at Region III, replied on behalf of the agency in December 2015, simply stating, “We believe that EPA Region III did operate in accordance with Title 6 while conducting our prison initiative review.”
When pressed to elaborate, Seneca continued, “EPA uses the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau for EJ Screen. You may want to check with the Census Bureau to verify where inmates are included in census data. Our regional EPA office uses the EJ Screen data as a tool. If you have more questions about the EJ Screen tool overall, you should direct them to the EPA Headquarters press office.”
So that was the next stop. The EPA’s press contact for Environmental Justice, Julia Valentine, responded with an indication that the agency does use census data that would include prisoners. It’s not too far-fetched to want to believe her. After all, governing bodies across the country have been counting prisoners as a way of gerrymandering voting districts for decades now – despite most prisoners having no access to a ballot.
It’s just that, unlike the shady dealings of state legislatures nationwide, the EPA seems to have nothing to show for it. But Valentine, being a diligent press officer, did not concede. Instead she offered some re-assurance, maybe even a glimmer of hope.
“EPA is committed to addressing the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies,” she wrote in an email to the Prison Ecology Project in December 2015.
Valentine continued, “EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this nation, including prison populations. While most aspects of the management and regulation of prisons fall under the purview of the U.S. Department of Justice, EPA will ensure that we do our part to ensure that environment justice is addressed in all our policies and programs that impact these populations.”
But after two-and-a-half decades of dealing with prison-related bureaucracy, Wright is not inclined to believe it until he sees it.
“After having our staff pour over two decades of environmental documents from prison construction, interview EPA staff, consult with prominent environmental organizations and attend the largest environmental law conferences in the country … we’ve seen nothing that points to the EPA, or any other government agency, having ever looked seriously at the impact of environmental justice issues on prisoners,” he stated.
The above text is excerpted from a longer article published on the Earth First! Newswire, EarthFirstJournal.org. It is offered as part of a push to apply pressure on the prison system through environmental regulation. Activists with the Prison Ecology Project and the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons will be gathering in Washington D.C. June 11-13. Details can be found at FightToxicPrisons.org.
To report an environmental problem at your prison, jail or detention facility, send a letter to: Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance 2201A, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20460.
Panagioti Tsolkas joined the Human Rights Defense Center in November 2014, coordinating community outreach efforts and volunteer involvement. He also directs HRDC’s Stop Prison Profiteering campaign, aimed at addressing prison services that financially exploit prisoners and their families, as well as HRDC’s Prison Ecology Project, which maps the connections between mass incarceration and environmental degradation. Prior to working at HRDC, Panagioti was an editor for the Earth First! Journal. He also served as chairperson for the City of Lake Worth’s Community Relations Board, tasked primarily with oversight of police conduct, as co-chair of the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition and as an Executive Committee member of the Sierra Club’s Loxahatchee Group. Reach him on Twitter at @PTsolkas, email FightToxicPrisons@gmail.com or write to Human Rights Defense Center, P.O. Box 1151, Lake Worth, FL 33460.