Across the Midwest, Counties Are Building New Jails on Toxic Land

Nestled in Cleveland’s Industrial Valley, the intersection of Transport Road and Rockefeller Avenue holds the story of the city’s toxic past — and potentially poisonous future. Once the home of a massive oil refinery, the plot is now the potential new home of a $700 million jail in the heart of Cleveland’s industrial corridor.

County officials say the new jail is needed to provide a safer and better-resourced facility after more than one dozen detainees died in county custody in recent years. But the plan has ignited a movement to block construction of the jail on a site that the Ohio government once deemed too toxic for a state prison.

“It’s a slap in the face,” said Yvonka Hall, a member of the coalition to stop the Cuyahoga County Jail.

The potential Cleveland facility underscores a trend across the Midwest, which has seen a boom in jail construction in recent years. At least 23 jails — totaling $3.6 billion — have been either proposed or constructed on toxic and contaminated lands since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Capital B analysis of local news reporting and federal data from the National Institute of Corrections. All but three of these facilities also were located in their state’s toxic air corridors, where the most harmful health risks from air pollution, including COVID-19 and cancer, are found.

The trend has unique implications for Black folks. In states where the 23 projects are located — Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin — Black people are nearly six times more likely than other racial groups to be incarcerated, making up more than 40 percent of those locked in jails and prisons.

The construction of detention facilities on contaminated lands reinforces an often forgotten form of environmental racism, said David Pellow, director of the Global Environmental Justice Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“It’s literally putting these folks in double jeopardy, putting them in an inherently unsafe place that causes health and mental health problems by design. Then you’re going to layer environmental, chemical toxicity on top of that,” Pellow said.

“This practice is an amplified case of environmental racism,” he added. “Because incarcerated folks are completely powerless, most people in society embrace this disenfranchisement and environmental violence.”

Jail Construction Booms

Those environmental health harms, ironically, have been partially funded by billions of dollars of federal COVID relief made available since 2020. At least nine of the counties found in Capital B’s analysis have either used or planned to use federal pandemic funds to build the detention facilities. Meanwhile, jails drove millions of COVID-19 infections during the first year of the pandemic, according to a 2021 study.

Across the country, counties in at least 18 states have used or want to use COVID funds to build new jails, a recent investigation by The Nation found.

In the U.S., jail spending is higher than ever, with the country spending more than $25 billion annually on county detention facilities, according to the latest nationally available data in 2017 — a 13 percent increase in spending over the previous decade.

Since 1970, America’s jail capacity has grown from 243,000 beds to roughly 1 million. An outsized amount of this growth has occurred in Midwestern states, according to a University of Nebraska study.

While municipalities have a documented history of building detention centers in heavily polluted areas from Los Angeles to New York, the Midwest has become a hub for the practice as industrial cities have moved through urban revitalization. With formerly industrial sites sitting empty for years and cash-strapped counties needing new sources of revenue, these locations have been rezoned for businesses, homes, and jails.

In Wayne County, Michigan, a new $600 million jail is sandwiched between a waste incinerator, a hazardous waste treatment plant, and the former site of an incinerator frequently cited for exceeding emissions standards. The practice is found in rural areas, as well. In Ohio’s Appalachian region, Coshocton County officials have proposed a $30 million, 120-bed jail on top of a former steel plant.

The construction of new jail facilities has grown in conjunction with poverty levels in formerly industrial communities. In Indiana, where poverty has increased by 30 percent since 2005 as more than 50,000 industrial jobs have disappeared, a recent investigation by the Vera Institute found that 40 percent of the state’s 92 counties are building jails or planning jail construction.

Building in these areas has come with significant environmental risks, particularly for Black Americans. In urban Dane County, Wisconsin, a new 1,000-bed, $175 million jail is being built in an area with the worst health risks from air pollution in the state. As of August 11, 53 percent of the county jail’s population was Black, despite the county being less than 6 percent Black.

Just 150 miles south of Cleveland, Franklin County, Ohio’s new 1,300-bed, $360 million jail — which the county wants to fund through COVID relief money partially — is built in an area where residents have a higher cancer risk from air pollution than 99 percent of the state and a lower life expectancy than 98 percent of the country.

With this trend, the connections between incarceration and environmental justice have been pushed to the forefront of a social movement. In Wayne County, Michigan, and Vigo County, Indiana, for instance, activists have attempted to use environmental laws to block the construction of new jails.

Cleveland’s Industrial Valley

Cleveland’s toxic past is hard to escape. With the Civil War raging on, oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller purchased his first oil refinery in 1863, located at what is now known as 2700 Transport Road. Operating for four decades before the country had uniform pollution standards, this refinery, one of Rockefeller’s 21 oil refineries in Cleveland, was his company’s flagship.

Fast forward nearly a century to the early 2000s, the site, now an industrial waste recycling plant, was once again one of the city’s most environmentally toxic. For years, the industrial plant violated federal clean-air standards and racked up tens of thousands of dollars of fines before abandoning the operation altogether. After a high-octane gasoline tank explosion at the plant injured six workers, the plant’s operators, General Environmental Management, decided to close rather than pay $1.2 million to bring the site up to environmental, health, and safety standards.

Today, the site is home to a shipping container storage yard and elevated levels of diesel pollution. Given its current industrial use, it’s not surprising that, despite multiple rounds of environmental remediation, it is still home to levels of the cancerous chemical benzene and the climate change-causing methane gas at levels well above standards.

Hall, the activist involved in trying to stop the county jail, questions how placing the facility on a toxic site will solve the issue of inhumane conditions that county officials often highlight.

“You force people into areas with contaminated soil and high levels of particulate matter where they’re going to get sick, but won’t get the medical attention they need or the food they need,” said Hall, director of the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition. “What does this do except set them up for a lifelong engagement in the justice system?”

Earlier this year, a county consultant claimed despite this site’s toxic past, it would not be viable to look for other sites and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per site on testing. It’s not a “scary property,” the consultant said, adding that placing a jail on the site would be an example of “normal urban redevelopment.”

The rhetoric, one that argues that most potential sites in urban areas will have some elements of environmental contamination, is dangerous, Pellow says. “If it is so hard to keep people safe and find land that is not toxic, then maybe we need to start looking beyond incarceration,” he said.

The state’s Environmental Protection Agency is expected to give its ruling on the potential site soon.

Cleveland’s environmental health impacts are wide-reaching. Although millions of dollars have been allocated to address lead exposure, children living in Cuyahoga County continue to have the country’s highest risk. In 2016, about 10 percent of kids in Cuyahoga County were exposed to lead at or above the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s standards. Within Cleveland city limits, children have lead poisoning rates nearly four times the national average.

This public health catastrophe, which is twice as widespread as the lead poisoning emergency caused by the Flint Water Crisis, is caused by soil contamination through the city’s industrial past and aging housing stock. In Cuyahoga County, 80 percent of the housing stock contains lead; in Cleveland, it is nearly 90 percent.

“We need to talk about the cyclical impact this has on our communities,” Hall said. “We’re poisoned starting as children, we find lead in our blood and bones. Then, it stops our ability to fully develop cognitively, causing poor decision-making.”

“Then, you add the fact that many of our communities are poor. They’ve created a jail and prison pipeline.”