‘We are the minority and society doesn’t care’: The marriage between toxic waste and prisons

The prison ecology movement has achieved notable gains.

A security fence surrounds the inmate housing on New York's Rikers Island correctional facility in New York. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)
A security fence surrounds the inmate housing on New York's Rikers Island correctional facility in New York. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

When the Department of Justice proposed earlier this year to cancel the $444 million set aside for a new federal prison in Letcher County, Kentucky, the nascent prison ecology movement — which views penal reform through an ecological lens — hailed it as a victory.

“I took it as a huge compliment to us that the DOJ ‘fessed up about not needing the Letcher prison. There are a lot of politics and back door dealings in budget decisions like that, but it read pretty clearly as DOJ saying to Trump’s budget team, ‘We’re likely to lose this one to amassing opposition,’” said Panagioti Tsolkas, a co-founder of the Prison Ecology Project (PEP), a division of the Human Rights Defense Center.

The prison ecology movement, which Tsolkas describes as an effort to “drastically change the idea of prison and an industrialized penal system in general,” has long fought against the construction of prisons in environmentally-sensitive areas and pushed back against overcrowding that often leads to pollution. Only recently has the movement achieved notable victories.

In its fight against the Letcher County prison, PEP forged an alliance with a variety of groups in the coal-caked hills of deep southeast Kentucky to send out mass emails and letters. They also ramped up a phone bank that, they say, has helped turn the tide of public opinion against the project in Letcher County, which would have beds for more than 1,000 inmates.

While it appears the DOJ has halted the prison’s construction, for now — a formal Record of Decision explaining the remediation plan for the prison site has not yet been issued — the project still has powerful allies. One such champion is Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. His communications director brushed off the suggestion that environmental opposition has had an impact on the project and vowed that the prison construction will move forward.  

“The prison construction project in Letcher County, Kentucky is still on track with full funding in place,” said Danielle Smoot, Rogers’ communications director. Smoot pointed out that the DOJ only proposed cancelling it, but that Congress, which has the final say, has not followed their recommendation. Rogers is satisfied that the prison — located on a coal strip mining site — will meet environmental standards.

It is unclear why the tough-on-crime Trump administration has opposed the construction of the Letcher County prison. Department of Justice deputy spokesman for public affairs Ian Prior declined to acknowledge whether it’s because, as the Washington Post recently reported, the administration tends to favor private over public prisons. To be clear, though, the Letcher County prison was planned for high security inmates, which are not housed by private prisons, according to Bureau of Prisons (BOP) spokesman Nancy Ayers.

The prison ecology movement is not just about pollution

The BOP’s final Environmental Impact Study (EIS) on the Letcher County prison declared that there would be “no significant impacts to vegetation, wildlife and threatened and endangered species,” nor would the facility at “have significant impacts to land use, air quality, or cultural resources.”

But the EIS doesn’t address the main concerns of those in the prison ecology movement — the whole structure of the incarceration system.

We are not proposing LEED certified prisons. That simply feeds the perception that you can just put solar panels on a prison and everything is okay. The real issue is that there is a problem with the industry at its core. What we are proposing is, the scale of the prison system is the problem. Piling thousands into a building, into a warehouse is a problem,” Tsolkas told ThinkProgress. 

According to the Prison Ecology Project, the problem of inmate health problems caused by environmental issues and overcrowding is one repeated across the country. State Correctional Institution — Fayette in La Belle, Pennsylvania is another facility on PEP’s radar. Immediately after the prison opened its doors in 2003, inmates and prison staff started complaining about health issues from an adjacent fly ash dump.

A trailer sets in the entrance driveway to the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute Fayette prison site (Credit: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
A trailer sets in the entrance driveway to the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute Fayette prison site (Credit: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Sonny Markish, who lives in the house closest to the prison, is experiencing the same health issues as the prisoners, so he has something rare among those outside the prison walls: empathy.

“I know those people have done something wrong or they wouldn’t be there, but Christ, all of those people don’t have a death sentence. But they can’t get out of the prison,” Markish told Al-Jazeera America in 2016. Markish, himself, has had three kinds of cancer that he attributes to the fly ash.

On the other side of the state, everyday, Bryant Arroyo and a thousand other inmates at State Correctional Institution — Frackville in Schuylkill County, PA worry that simply taking a drink or brushing their teeth may be shortening their lives. But because of where they are, few people care.

“We are the minority and society doesn’t care,” Arroyo told ThinkProgress. He has been incarcerated since 1994 on charges of first degree murder. Arroyo added that people should care, if not out of compassion, but for economic reasons.

“At the end of the day, the pain and suffering of prisoners is borne by taxpayers … If the prisoner is drinking dirty water and gets sick, that can cost millions and the taxpayer ends up paying for it,” said Arroyo.

Arroyo said that on several occasions, recently, the prison has had to shut off the water altogether because it was foul-smelling and brown and prison staff resorted to handing out bottled water to inmates. An overwhelming majority of the prisoner population was exposed to this contamination and experienced bouts of diarrhea, vomiting, sore throats, and dizziness.

“If we had a different attitude towards prisoners and saw them as not throwaways, but as human beings … things would improve.”

Pennsylvania prison officials, however, insist the state’s prisons are safe. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spokesperson Amy Worden said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress, “The health and safety of inmates and staff at Pennsylvania’s 25 correctional institutions is paramount.”  

She added, regarding the fly ash that “in response to inmate complaints, the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection conducted a multi-level inspection at SCI Fayette to assess regulatory compliance. The initial report indicates there were no violations and more importantly no evidence of fly ash anywhere.”

And as far as water issues in Frackville, Worden said that while there have been occasional turbidity issues, “The prison is working closely with (the local water company) and they have assured facility officials that the water, although discolored at times, is safe to drink.”

There is a marriage between toxic waste and prisons

As part of a comprehensive June 2017 investigative report co-authored by Earth Island Journal and Truthout, Paige Williams, an independent cartographer for the Prison Ecology Project identified a range of correctional facilities from the federal Supermax in Colorado to the Marion County Community Corrections Center in Indiana as having ecological-related health issues impacting inmates. In fact, she identified 589 federal and state prisons located within three miles of Superfund sites, or hazardous and contaminated areas. Many are much closer.

Turns out there is a marriage between toxic waste and prisons. No one wants toxic waste in their backyard. Nor do most people want a prison. Often, prisons are located on former Superfund sites.

Prison Ecology Project has found an open ear with the EPA, which recently completed a project — the origins of which began with the Obama administration — in August that allows users map prison locations and compare them with known Superfund sites. The mapping tool, known as EJSCREEN, is part of the EPA’s Environmental Justice division.

Tsolkas speculated that this EJSCREEN tool could have just “slipped through the cracks” (the Trump administration has been notoriously neglectful of the environment). But an EPA spokesman told ThinkProgress that environmental justice remains a part of the agency’s agenda.

“Incarcerated people are totally ignored.”

For Tsolkas and others in the prison ecology movement, the EPA’s EJSCREEN tool has been invaluable at plotting the frequent nexus of environment and incarceration.

“… [F]or years, we’ve been collecting letters from prisoners from all over the country about water systems, waste management,” Tolkas said. “EJSCREEN is a helpful tool in that this information is not only coming from us now, but the EPA.”

Michael Mushlin, a professor of law at Pace University’s Elisabeth Haub School of Law, told ThinkProgress that the root of the problem is society’s larger attitude towards prisoners.

“If we had a different attitude towards prisoners and saw them as not throwaways, but as human beings that need to be assisted, and in our interest to be treated humanely, things would improve,” Mushlin says.

One of Mushlin’s students has studied the relationship between ecology and prisons. While much attention of the prison ecology movement is focused on carcinogens and pollution, Brenna Fitzpatrick has researched how prisons are poorly equipped to handle natural disasters, like hurricanes and flooding.

“Incarcerated people are totally ignored,” Fitzpatrick told ThinkProgress, pointing to Hurricane Sandy, which struck the Caribbean and parts of the East Coast in 2012. When Sandy plowed into Rikers Island, New York City’s main prison complex, there were no evacuations of the inmates there.

“During Katrina, jails were flooded with absolutely horrific conditions like sewage; people were up to their knees and chest in sewage water and were trapped in the jail for days,” Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick sees the prison ecology movement as just one component of an overall movement by activists to transform the way the penal system in the United States is viewed.

“I think prison ecology fits perfectly within the environmental justice framework, which has always looked at how environmental problems affect the most marginalized,” Fitzpatrick said. “And incarcerated people are among the most marginalized.”

Meanwhile, back in Letcher County, PEP will be ready to mobilize and organize if the Record of Decision is issued for construction. Lill Prosperino is part of a local organization called the Letcher Governance Project that opposes the prison.

“As far as prison ecology goes it highlights intersections of problems that have existed for a long time. Prisons have been used as an economic tool in Appalachia and I think that is disgusting,” Prosperino told ThinkProgress. And even if the prison is ultimately built, Prosperino and PEP will continue to highlight the ecological injustices.

“I I think there are a lot of things we can do even if the prison does come here, it will be the beginning of a long road,” Prosperino said.